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.