Sunday, November 28, 2010
Winter's Bone ***
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
Kevin Breznahan, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, William White
It's refreshing to see a movie about poor people and drug dealers that doesn't feel like a movie about poor people and drug dealers. Debra Granik's Winter Bone is a masterfully told tale of tragedy and misfortune amidst social decay that doesn't need to be exploitative to get its point across.
Jennifer Larence stars as Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old living in the Missouri Ozarks. Her mother is in a catatonic state (we never learn how she ended like that) and Ree has to take care of her two younger siblings with whatever little money and supplies they get.
Her father, a crystal meth maker, has gone missing but not without doing one last misdeed: he put the family home as bail bond and unless he appears within a week, the authorities will take over the property.
Ree sets off on a search for her father that will lead her to encounter evil and violence among territory she realizes is completely unfamiliar.
Instead of becoming a manipulative tale about how much this young woman suffers, Granik turns it into a Gothic fable, a feminist rite of passage even. The director sets up a micro universe among the mountains which defies the strictness of cinematic realism.
We know all along that something about the setting and characters have more to do with The Night of the Hunter than with Frozen River, as Granik filters this world through her own vision of mythical America instead of approaching it with the preachiness of a biased documentary (there's a haunting scene near the end of the movie that convinces us Granik would've been a better choice to remake Clash of the Titans).
This is a universe of inverted justice where outlaws make the rules and Ree's search is a threat instead of a cause for people to unite.
There are tribal qualities to the structure Granik presents us where women are subjugated by their drug manufacturing men but still have the power to kidnap and beat a young girl.
Where patriarchal figures aren't defined by blood links but by power and fear, as is the case with White's creepy Blond Milton.
And in this strange, nightmare like setting we have our young heroine going through journeys usually reserved for men. It's this way in which Granik bends the rules of gender that makes her film so fascinating.
When we see Ree teaching her siblings how to shoot a rifle, we aren't supposed to be pitying their lack of parents but surprised by Ree's hands-on approach. Since the entire film rests on her back it's fortunate that Lawrence plays her with such conviction and ease.
She makes Ree someone who has learned how to deal with life the hard way but hasn't lost herself in the process. Whenever something goes wrong for her we know that we won't have to endure melodramatic scenes and dialogues, Ree just picks herself up and moves on.
Lawrence amazingly avoids making her a martyr and we see how every little thing this woman does is carefully thought out. When she intends to join the army to raise the money to save her house (again not as melodramatic as it sounds) we see that her sacrifice isn't done out of some deep need to be praised but merely because she needs the house.
In a film with several fine performances (Hawkes is phenomenal as Ree's strange uncle) Lawrence owns the film and carries it with the confidence of a mythical figure. "Ain't you got no man to do this?" asks one character, Lawrence convinces us nobody would've done it better.
During one of the first scenes in the film we see as Ree wanders along the hallways of her siblings' school. She peeks inside one class where she sees how students train to handle babies. She moves on to another room where she sees a group practicing a military march. Granik shows us here how Ree is always in the outside looking in, while establishing that her film is not an attempt to say something about the "real" world but simply telling a story.
And she's so good at it that we can imagine Winter's Bone being told around a campfire.