Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter's Bone

It doesn't happen often, but on rare occasions, a film forces me to look at my life with fresh eyes and consider just how lucky I truly am and how insignificant my problems are.  Sure, I may have been exposed to an experimental chemical that is slowly dissolving my eyeballs from the inside out, and I may have bookies hounding me night and day, thanks to the debts I've accrued from betting poorly on the LPGA.  Or, maybe not.  The point is, I am beyond thankful that I was not born poor white trash.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is not so lucky.  At seventeen, she is the sole responsible "adult" in her household, getting food when and where she can (hunt, scavenge, but never begging) and raising her young brother and sister; her mother has an undisclosed mental problem that leaves her in a catatonic stupor most of the time and her father is a known methamphetamine cook, a profession that rarely leads him (or any money) home.  Bad news, Ree.  The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) suspects that your daddy, Jessup, is going to skip out on his bail.  Big deal, right?  Actually, it is.  Jessup didn't have any money to post bail, so he put up the family house and land, which means that if he skips bail, you lose your home.  With a no-you-didn't resolve that would make RuPaul proud, Ree decides that there is no way in hell that is going to happen.  The rest of the film has her hunting Jessup down, asking all the wrong people all the wrong questions.  Ree knows that she's asking for trouble; if she didn't know, then she would have learned quickly, because before she speaks to the meth-addicted backwoods scumbags she knows have information on her father, she is warned by their wife/girlfriend/lady-friends.  No one helps her.  No one encourages her.  She should fail, and her family should scatter into the wind.  But the only thing that will stop Ree from protecting her family is death.

I don't often finish watching a movie impressed by the female lead.  Part of this is my tendency to shy away from period piece dramas (where Oscar seems to think the best female acting comes from) and part of it is because Hollywood doesn't have much material for strong women characters.  I was extremely impressed by Jennifer Lawrence's performance; she deserves a nomination for a Golden Globe, if not an Oscar.  Her performance is quiet and nuanced, and her character could easily seem unrealistically optimistic.  Instead, she just seems to draw from an inner well of strength, which is a lot harder to portray on the screen than being cheerful or a bad-ass.  Or a cheerful bad-ass.  But she's not a bad-ass, she's just a kid playing another kid, one who refuses to give up hope.  This film absolutely depends on Lawrence's performance, with little help from the supporting cast, but John Hawkes, who played her uncle Teardrop (a family name, I assume), made a nice turn here.  He plays the kind of ragged, stringy piece of trash that will stab you in the throat because it's Tuesday, and his living-for-nothing attitude and actions provide a sharp and sometimes frightening contrast to Ree.  And yet, the film provides moments for even Teardrop's craziness to pause long enough to see him as an innocent again.  The direction of co-writer Debra Granik is nothing special, in terms of cinematography.  If Ree has to walk somewhere, the camera will show her walking away.  Nineteen year-old Lawrence's performance, though, implies that Granik has some talent for handling actors --- I'm interested in what she can do with a script that has more developed characters in it.

Despite the stellar lead performance, the depth of this cast is not very impressive.  Almost all of the characters are one-dimensional and Lawrence's performance makes me wish she had more to compete against.  I wish this movie had more of a Coen Brothers feel to it; they usually have a very well-defined main character, but their supporting roles are consistently fantastic.  The direction, while utilitarian, could have added a lot more to the picture, if only they had tried even a couple of shots to provide some subtle symbolism to the film.

In a lot of ways, this is a frighteningly realistic film.  I knew that meth was thinning our nation's poor white trash population, but the movie depicts this crippling drug trade without prejudice.  It's just how things are, and things are depressing as all hell.  I found the gender dynamics interesting; the women of the meth men always act tough, initially, to Ree, but it soon becomes apparent that they are trying to scare her off because they know enough to be frightened of their own lovers.  I'm a huge fan of noir, and this is one of the better modern entries in the genre I have seen in a while; it's tough, gritty, unemotional (except in very small, unexpected ways) and surprisingly uplifting for a film that gives you little to smile about.  This movie is not for everyone.  The pace is deliberate and its depression can lie on you like a heavy quilt.  But this is worth seeing, if only as a reminder that your life isn't so bad, after all.

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