Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter's Bone Movie Review: An Unusual Slice of Americana in One of the Best Films of the Year

Wikipedia tells me that the novels of Daniel Woodrell have been dubbed “country noir.” That would certainly be a fitting term for the film adaptation of his novel Winter’s Bone. Adapted by Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini and directed by Granik, the film presents a slice of life so distinctly American it belongs in the canon along with The Godfather or The Grapes of Wrath.


Jennifer Lawrence – surely destined to become one of the preeminent actresses of her generation – plays Ree Dolly, a teenager from the Missouri Ozarks saddled with responsibilities far beyond her years. She is caretaker of her family that includes a younger brother and sister and an incapacitated mother. Dad is a manufacturer of crystal meth, known as such by the entire population of the film (who spend a good deal of time pointing out the fact that they’ve mostly got the same blood coursing through their veins). The local sheriff comes by to inform Ree that her father has put up their house and land as bond and now he’s disappeared. Unless she finds him, she and her family will be living on the dirt roads of this forsaken and seemingly forgotten land.

And so the first part of the story becomes a missing person mystery with Ree at the center. Lawrence is reminiscent of a young Laura Dern. She plays Ree with a rough and rugged demeanor, a sharp tongue and an even sharper knowledge of the capacity of people to do wrong. She follows a trail of clues and snippets of information presented first by her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), and later by other neighbors and known associates of her father’s. Everyone seems to know something, but refuses to talk. Ree is obstinate and in some cases overstays her welcome on other people’s property and is delivered a rough comeuppance. After it becomes clear where Ree’s father is, the story shifts its focus to how she is going to manage to save her family.

My earlier comparison to The Godfather for its distinctly American story is also apt in the sense that Winter’s Bone is basically organized crime in the Ozarks. You can imagine this story set in the urban jungle – the seediest parts of New York, Chicago or Detroit. Ree’s father is involved in production of a drug that’s tied into the economic foundation of the entire region represented in the film. And all the players and associates adhere to a code of silence and are willing to use physical violence as much as necessary to keep Ree from snooping around too much.

What makes it such an American film? Well, the obvious answers are the noir elements (a genre invented in America) and the setting. The Missouri Ozarks are almost quite literally Middle America. Westerns depict the wild open range of the unsettled west, often using the incredible landscape as a character itself. Well there are other landscapes in the US that feel like they couldn’t be in any other country. I’m thinking of the Appalachian setting of Deliverance or the Los Angeles of Chinatown and now we can add the Ozarks of Winter’s Bone to the list.

However, more than that it’s also a story of self-sufficiency. Isn’t that the ultimate in the ascendency to the American dream? Ree has learned out of necessity how to take care of her family and property. Granik and Rosselini very wisely take the time to show Ree teaching her younger siblings to shoot a rifle and skin a squirrel – two indispensable survival skills in such unsparing country.

Their screenplay also reflects the often complicated relationship Americans have with authority figures, here represented by the police, but which could just as easily be standing in for the nanny state and government overreach. When the sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) shows up, he is never referred to by name or title, but rather as “the law.” The subjugation of his position demonstrates the division between the people who participate in the local economy and the powers that would seek to destroy their way of life by locking up the dealers and suppliers.

Granik’s direction makes the film all about evoking a sense of place. Few filmmakers have as strong a command over creating an authentic setting as Granik exhibits here. Everything from Mark White’s production design and the costumes created by Rebecca Hoffher to the actors hired to portray small, but key, roles contribute a that authenticity. The main parts are outfitted with professional actors, but it seems to me that many of the other roles (with the notable exception of Sheryl Lee, who appears briefly as a woman who offers help to Ree) feel like they’re portrayed by local non-professionals.

The set design doesn’t look or feel too perfect as can often be the case with many films. The houses (shacks is a more appropriate word, actually) look weathered and battered by time and lack of funds for refurbishing. The yards are strewn with old machine parts and tools with grass and weeds sometimes growing waist high. I’ve rarely felt dirtier while watching a movie. Add to that the winter time setting, starkly shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough. The graying skies that recede far into the distance offer little contrast to the muted browns of the barren trees and dying vegetation. McDonough’s camera never makes you feel safe or comfortable. You can almost feel the chill of that winter right down to your on bones.

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