Thursday, November 11, 2010

Desperation is a Masochistic Beast -- Reflections on "Winter's Bone" (2010)

You gotta fight...for your PARTY!

A movie, when done right, should be able to transport you to a world in which you never thought you wanted to go. It should open your eyes to sights unseen, or make unfamiliar the familiar. Characters should be at once instantly understandable, yet completely real. And the story which unfolds should surprise, excite, and ignite the imagination. It shouldn't matter the genre, whether romance, family drama, or horror -- a good film is a good film regardless of its content.

Winter's Bone is a not just a good film -- it may even be a great one.

Chances are, though, you've probably never heard of it. The film, at it's peak early in the summer, was shown on only 141 screens nationwide. It did well on the indie film festival circuit, but didn't quite have the ground-roots buzz of other low-budget films. It is an Academy Award-worthy film, but because of the limited resources of its distributors, it most likely will not be able to launch a large enough campaign to curry favor amongst Academy voters. Not that awards mean much in the great scheme of things, but for a film like Winter's Bone, it means a much wider, deserving audience.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a seventeen-year old girl trapped in the destitute rural region of the Ozarks, raising her younger brother and sister while also tending to her sick mother and taking care of their house. She cooks, cleans, chops wood, feeds the animals, checks homework, and wanders around her own school like the ghost of a dead student who knows she will never belong to the culture behind the closed classroom doors. Her life is one of despair, but Ree is strong-willed, tough, and accepting. We never pity her because she never pities herself.

One day the town Sheriff arrives at her doorstep, a cause for alarm in her parts, although not for reasons you might think. He brings bad news: her father, in prison for cooking crank, has posted bail and put the family's home up as collateral. If he doesn't show to court on time, the family will be homeless. Ree suddenly finds herself on a mission to track down her missing father. This means asking for help in a town where help is scarce, trust is void, and violence is currency. Secrets are learned, and Ree's strength is put to the ultimate test.

There are scenes in this film that stick with me, like when Ree takes her brother and sister hunting and teaches her brother, Sonny, how to skin a squirrel. "Do we have to eat these parts?" he asks as she forces his fingers into the rodent's guts. "Not yet," Ree tells him. I was also devastated by a scene in which Ree returns to see a man known as Thump (Ronnie Hall), despite the fact Thump's woman, Merab (Dale Dickey), made it perfectly clear that doing so would result in awful violence. At once, her return seems inexplicable -- is she a masochist? But desperation is a masochistic beast, and the way the scene unfolds is as horrifying as it is breathtaking.

Writer/director Debra Granik has put together one of the most stirring, haunting, beautiful films I've seen. The cinematography draws you in to this secret world of the Ozarks, painting it in strokes that reminded me of Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I've got promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep." In that poem, the narrator's horse seems uneasy about their trip, much as we do while watching Winter's Bone. The world we see is unfamiliar, making the behavior of its occupants unpredictable and scary. Everyone carries about them a lean, hungry look, like starving animals.

The performances are exceptional, especially that of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. I can't heap enough praise on her. She has created an iconic character, perhaps the strongest female lead I've ever seen in a movie. Ree's remarkable toughness is offset by a childlike vulnerability that belies her age. She realizes she has to trust people in a society where no one is trustworthy. Even her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who is the closest person she has to an ally, is a meth addict. At one point he even offers her a toot from his spoon. "You haven't gotten a taste for it yet?" he asks. "Not yet," Ree tells him. He's unreliable, but he's all she has.

I love reviewing movies, but most of the time I only write about films that I'm pretty sure most people will see, or have already seen. As a result, I can spend more time writing about themes and my personal ideas about the film's point-of-view. This may be the first film I've ever actually written about that I really want to convince you to see. That's partially because of the fact that very few saw it, but mostly because it's a special movie that will have an effect on you in a profound way.

Note: It has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD, so I recommend you go find a copy this weekend.

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