Monday 12 December 2011

Long and dark December

Usually it's worth being wary of Sundance: award-baiting generic indie fare isn't anyone's idea of a good time. But sometimes a real gem slips through and gets the accolades it deserves. Thus it was with Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2010), and although the film failed to make a splash at the box office (earning $6.53 million on a budget of $2 million), critical reception more than made up for it.

Granik's drama stands out for its evocation of a place: an important part of any film, but Winter's Bone is all about the Ozarks, the hill country of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. It was shot in location in Christian and Taney Counties, MO., and the filmmakers were willing to rewrite lines to ensure an authentic representation of Ozarks culture. If that almost anthropological attention to detail is a strength, it's also the film's Achilles' heel - but I'll get to that.

Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling to look after her younger siblings (Ashlee Thompson and Isaiah Stone) and her severely depressed mother (Valerie Richards) in rural southern Missouri. One day the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) pulls up outside and tells her that her father, Jessup, has skipped bail after being arrested for cooking meth. If Jessup doesn't turn up for his court date, the family will lose their house, which has been put up for bail. Ree, who knows her family will have nowhere to go, resolves to find her father and persuade him to turn himself in.

As she goes to ask relatives and neighbours about Jessup's whereabouts, though, she finds them guarded and uncooperative. Her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), warns her that asking people 'about shit they ain't offered to talk about' is a 'real good way to end up bit by hogs' (Deadwood shout-out?). Even after being shown the meth lab in which her father allegedly blew himself up, Ree remains unconvinced, and her continued investigation eventually leads to a run-in with the clan of local crime boss Thump Milton (Ron 'Stray Dog' Hall).

The plot, though, isn't the single greatest contribution to the success of Winter's Bone. That would be the cinematography. As shot by longtime Debra Granik collaborator Michael McDonough, Winter's Bone looks frosty and crisp (it's no surprise it was filmed on the Red One digital camera). It's often deliberately overlit, capturing the long shadows and pale, cold daylight of winter. This is all the more effective as the film eschews the shopworn tropes of winter cinematography: there's no snow anywhere to be seen, for example. (Principal photography took place in late winter, concluding in March 2009.) The colours are desaturated but not washed out, as if they had retreated to their essence. Winter's Bone looks, in other words, like a dream.

That's appropriate since the film is essentially a fairy-tale, and Ree's search for her father is a quest. Her repeated refusal to heed warnings of a dangerous place in the woods, which drives the plot, is distinctly reminiscent of the genre, and the film's climactic scene, which takes place on a lake in the middle of the night, is a test of the heroine's commitment to her cause. Creating a drama about poor rural Americans not in the obvious mode - social realism - but as fairy-tale is perhaps the most interesting artistic decision Granik took, and it pays off in the viewing experience.

The performances, too, are mostly if not uniformly excellent. Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Ree rightly catapulted her onto the A-list. She doesn't suggest that Ree is a vulnerable teenager beneath a hard exterior: rather, she has long shed doubts and fears, becoming tough in order to survive in a bleak world. The second standout is the terrific John Hawkes. His Teardrop is a man who has become so mean and threatening that Ree finds it difficult to trust him. Significantly, as Hawkes himself pointed out, he does not become a different character by the end of the film: rather, it's our perspective on him that changes. Dale Dickey is also mesmerising in the role of Merab, who regards Ree with sympathy but knows she must safeguard the interests of the Milton clan first.

Even so, there are a few reasons to feel uneasy about Winter's Bone. Its depiction of poverty is frankly pornographic. We're treated in lavish detail to the Dolly family's inability to feed itself: and while the rise of insecurity in the west should give us pause for thought, I'm not sure I like the outsider's perspective. There's an almost ethnographic feeling to the way in which rural America - shown as a society of patriarchal clans, as in much recent pop culture - is fictionalised here; and in presenting the Ozarks to an urban, liberal audience as strange, the viewer's perspective is affirmed rather than challenged. The backwoods are seen but not empowered.

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