Monday, July 26, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010)

The independent film Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a destitute Ozarks teenager on the hunt for her crank-cooking, absentee father in the backwoods along the Missouri-Arkansas border. It's a film that's been praised for its realism, but this seems a bit off base. Winter’s Bone is certainly a good film, but it works more as a kind of larger-than-life, southern gothic thriller than it does as a Ramin Barhani-esque exercise in site specific cinema. At its heart, this is a well-observed genre film that often transcends the familiarity of its story thanks to its excellent performances. And while the sense of place that the film manages to cultivate is certainly worth noting, it’s the complex character interactions and director Debra Granik’s unique eye for the grotesque that are truly most memorable.

Granik shot most of the film in muted grays and blues, and this dour color palette, along with the handheld camerawork and Dickon Hinchcliffe’s original score, helps to build an almost constant feeling of dread. As Ree delves into the local underworld of trailer park chemists and speed freaks, Granik succeeds in building the kind of menacing, trust-no-one atmosphere that’s usually only found in suspense and horror films—and to great effect. The missing person case at the center of the story has led many to compare Winter’s Bone to a noir detective film—Daniel Woodrell, on whose book the film is based, is known to refer to his writing as "country noir"—and this is true enough. It views that genre through the prism of the Ozarks in the same way that a movie like Brick used a high school setting. But along with the detective story, Winter's Bone makes heavy use of horror tropes, particulary in the way that it builds tension and makes use of mystery. It has just as much in common with Last House on the Left as it does The Big Sleep, especially by the time we get to a late scene involving a chainsaw.

As in many horror films, certain players are often mythologized and built up by other characters long before they’re actually shown onscreen. It’s a classic technique for building tension and a sense of foreboding, and Granik plays it to perfection, especially in the case of Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree’s meth-addicted, caged tiger of an uncle. With his jailhouse tats and his mercurial, just-as-soon-kill-you-as-look-at-you demeanor, it’s Hawkes who’s the film’s most memorable character, and Granik honors him by giving him a wonderful, hauntingly unresolved last scene. He’s nearly matched by Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year old actress whose previous major credit was, of all things, The Bill Engvall Show. She brings a quiet dignity to Ree that is unusual for someone of her age to be able to pull off, and whether she’s skinning squirrels, chopping wood, or acting as a caretaker for her two young siblings and her mentally ill mother, she always seems totally authentic. Likewise, her command of the grit and flow of the backwoods dialect seems effortless, especially when compared to the kind of “aw shucks, ya’ll” histrionics so many Hollywood actresses seem to fall prey to when they try to go full redneck.

It’s this kind of attention to detail that helps Winter’s Bone maintain a veneer of authenticity, even in the cases where the set design seems all too staged. In many scenes, the filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to achieve a sense of realism through decoration—every coffee table is perfectly littered with crack pipes, guns, beer cans, and spent cigarettes, and every yard seems to have just one too many cars up on blocks—but it’s actually their excellent attention to character interaction that ends up getting the job done. See the way Ree’s neighbors, knowing she and her siblings are hungry, bring over some spare deer meat for them to eat (and after Ree had previously admonished her brother by saying “Never ask for what oughta be offered”), or a wonderful scene between Ree and a benevolent Army recruiter. In each case, Granik succeeds in building a world that operates by its own rules, moral codes, and blood ties, and it’s through this that a true sense of place emerges. After all, classical detectives like Sam Spade never invoked the name of a common cousin, or spoke about how he and another character “share some of the same blood,” as a means of getting the information he needed. In Winter’s Bone, these ties serve as their own kind of currency.

This intricate network of familial connections and sense of community—however perverted it may be—are the most interesting things on display here, and they definitely help to overshadow the film’s faults—particularly the ending, which, save for the possible fate of one key character, is a bit too easy. Still, there’s very little in Winter’s Bone that isn’t earned, and despite its generic trappings, there isn’t an exploitative moment on display here. The attempts at realism certainly aren't among its strengths, but that's not the point. It works precisely because of the familiarity of its story. If there's any transcendence to be found in Winter's Bone, it's in the ways that a universal tale—the gumshoe on the trail of the missing person—is reinterpreted by such an exotic environment.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Eclipse (2009)

The theme of being haunted is pervasive in The Eclipse, a beguiling Irish film from director Conor McPherson. It’s likely to be categorized as a horror film—and with good reason—but the hauntings on display here are more than just supernatural. Characters are plagued by memories, grief, romantic encounters, and guilt, and that emotional horror often proves to be just as gripping as the more classic “gotcha” moments, which are few in number but always unexpected and remarkably effective. The result is a horror film in the vein of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant or Repulsion, a story where the terror is borne not out of violence or visceral shocks but out of character, conflict, and emotional stress.

The Eclipse’s main character is Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds), a wood shop teacher from a stormy village on the Irish coast. Farr has yet to come to terms with the death of his wife a few years earlier, but he busies himself with his two young children and his work at the town’s annual literary festival, where he volunteers as a driver. When the film opens, Farr begins dealing with another kind of specter in the form of his wife’s invalid father (who, by the way, is still alive), whose ghost begins to manifest itself inside his house and in his dreams. He finds the perfect counsel for his problems in Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a popular writer of ghost stories who is in town for the literary festival. Their relationship flourishes thanks to their shared experience with the paranormal, but it’s complicated by the presence of Nicholas Holden (Aiden Quinn), a bestselling American writer who claims to be “haunted” by a brief affair he and Lena had months earlier.

Director Conor McPherson’s background is in the theater, but there is nothing stagey or stuffy about The Eclipse. Playwrights have a tendency to attempt to accomplish too much through dialogue, but McPherson’s approach is nothing if not uniquely cinematic. He lets his exposition build through small character actions and sly uses of set design, and his camerawork is entrancing, full of luxurious tracking shots and morbid framing that often recall Kubrick’s The Shining. The film’s moments of pure horror are few and far between, but when they come they are genuinely terrifying, thanks in no small part to some chillingly effective sound design. Still, McPherson’s boldest stylistic choice is the way he refuses to conform to any kind of traditional generic construct. He has a very particular story he’s trying to tell (specifically, the ways in which people choose to confront and move past grief) and he has no reservations about using everything from drama, horror, romance, and even slapstick comedy in order to get at it.

McPherson’s cause is no doubt helped by the exquisite trio of actors he has at the center of the film. Hjejle and Quinn are both wonderful, especially Quinn, who is clearly having a great time playing the pompous Holden. He’s a character we’d love to hate, but Quinn brings an emotional truth to the role that complicates any easy conclusions we might like to form about the kind of man he is. Still, this film ultimately belongs to Hinds, the wonderful Irish character actor who is a reassuring presence in any movie in which he appears. He’s an intimidating figure, but he brings a gentleness to Farr that is completely disarming, and this helps him succeed in gaining the audience’s trust right from the start. Any time you have a horror film with a genuine emotional core, it’s easy for the attempts at suspense to feel out of place, or worse yet, to cheapen the drama. But Hinds is so believable and so genuine that his performance manages to heighten everything around him.

At scarcely an hour and thirty minutes long, The Eclipse doesn’t waste a single scene. Its emphasis on character over plot is likely to lose some viewers, but those who are able to adjust to the story’s peculiar rhythms will be entranced. It’s structured like a great short story in the way that its characters, themes, and style are all so expertly intertwined. But at the same time there is a distinctly mysterious, evasive quality to the ideas it presents (like the provocative notion of a person’s ghost appearing prior to their death), which only seems to grow in complexity and meaning after the story is over. You’re not likely to be able to get The Eclipse out of your head easily—it’s the kind of film that will haunt you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Collapse (2009)

One of the most ubiquitous types of modern documentary is the “everything you know is wrong” movie. These are films which shun any attempt at objectivity in favor of giving a very specific viewpoint, usually in the vein of explaining just how screwed we all really are. We’ve already had movies about how our government is corrupt (No End in Sight), our economy is broken (IOUSA), our food is toxic (Food, Inc.) and our lives are controlled by private interests (The Corporation), and that’s just to name a few. Now comes Collapse, the most recent documentary from the director Chris Smith (American Movie), which synthesizes all these arguments into one Grand Unified Theory of paranoia about just how severely our modern world is under attack from forces beyond our control. It’s definitely some heavy stuff, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. Not only does Smith give us a stunning primer on the major problems facing the 21st century, but he also provides us with an intimate portrait of a man on the edge, a modern day street preacher whose obsession with saving the world seems to constantly be at odds with his own wellbeing.

That man is Michael Ruppert, a former L.A. narcotics cop who’s well known in certain online circles for his work as an investigative reporter/conspiracy theorist (depending on who you ask). A chain-smoking everyman with a bad comb over and a few extra pounds on him, Ruppert has made his name thanks to an investigative newsletter and website he ran called From the Wilderness. From predicting the financial crash to breaking the story of the cover-ups surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, Ruppert has been on the cutting edge of the underground news cycle for several years—something he claims has made him public enemy number one of the powers that be. Considering Ruppert and the film’s basic hypothesis—that overpopulation combined with a looming energy crisis and the illusory nature of the financial system is likely to lead to large-scale societal collapse—this probably isn’t all that surprising.

Make no mistake—Collapse is Ruppert’s movie. The entirety of the film’s original footage consists of one long Errol Morris-style interview with him. As Ruppert expounds on his theories about peak oil, government corruption, and the looming collapse of the financial system, Smith uses stock footage and charts and graphs to articulate his points, along with black and white intertitles (“OIL,” “ELECTRICTY,” “COMPOUND INTEREST,”) to help organize the monologue. Ruppert’s theories are certainly provocative, but the majority of his argument shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than a few hours trawling the internet. What’s really compelling about Ruppert is the way he’s able to synthesize all of these issues (his take on the financial system, for example, is as succinct as it is devastating) and convincingly explain what their long term effects might be. Smith’s film doesn’t go out of its way to fact check anything he says, but it’s easy to see why Ruppert might intimidate those in power: he’s scary-articulate, well-read, and comes from a respectable family of former military/CIA workers. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to write off as a crank (and many people have), but he’s just so damned erudite, so rational even when presenting his most bizarre theories, that you can’t avoid letting at least some of his ideas seep into your subconscious.

It’s no surprise that Ruppert’s personal character helps dictate how you interpret his message, because at it its heart, Collapse is nothing if not an in-depth character study of a man who has dedicated his life to signaling the alarm about where he believes our planet is headed. It’s especially telling that Smith includes no other interviews outside of Ruppert. None of his critics are given the space to rebut him; none of his ideas are backed up by scientific testimony. It’s just Ruppert. And even though he’s a compelling interview, you can’t help but begin to think that Smith is giving him just enough rope to hang himself. Early in the film, Ruppert is unflappable, listing off bullet points and quoting scholars and scientific facts as though he’s reading them from a book. But as the film progresses he starts to loosen up a bit. His rant becomes more profanity-laced; he smokes more; he even cries on camera. Whether this was a natural progression or just a bit of clever editing on Smith’s part is hard to say, but it is incredibly revealing. We start to see just how personally invested Ruppert is in his quest. By this point we’ve already learned about the sacrifices he’s made in its service (he claims to have been shot at; his office has been burglarized; he’s been harassed; and we’re told he’s in financial trouble), but it’s when we begin to realize the psychic toll it’s taken on him that it becomes clear that Collapse is really more about the man than it is the message. Ruppert’s theories of societal collapse may or not prove to be true, the filmmakers seem to be saying, but there’s no denying that its effects are already far too apparent in his own life.