It's cold out there in the woods ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's cold out there in the woods

Winter's Bone
My rating:

(Holy God, I am so behind on my reviews. I plead the Day Job Defense.)

Winter's Bone
was the last of 2010's Oscar-nominated films that I wanted to watch, and the most difficult to find; none of my regular DVD shops had it. So imagine my surprise when it showed up on the local cinema release schedule, over a year since it first started generating award-worthiness buzz. Of course I wanted to catch it, and I would've done it sooner so's I could recommend this obviously-not-gonna-be-a-big-blockbuster to y'all. Unfortunately, as thankful as I am to GSC International Screens for bringing it to our shores, I can't recommend watching it in cinemas. The projection area is smaller than the screen, the aspect ratio isn't even widescreen, the picture resolution is poor and there are no subtitles; it looks like GSC is just projecting from a DVD. Is this the best you can do, guys?

The movie itself, however, is pretty great.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is only 17, but she is already full-time caretaker to her younger brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and sister Ashley (Ashlee Thompson) and their catatonic mother. They live a hardscrabble life in the rural Ozarks, but get by on Ree's single-minded devotion to her family. But one day the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her father Jessup, who has long been missing and is out on bail for cooking meth, has put their house and land up for bond; if he doesn't show up for his court date, they'll lose their home. Ree's dogged determination to find her father - dead or alive - leads her to seek help from her friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser) and information from anyone who knew him. But all of them, including her own uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and the wife (Dale Dickey) of feared local crime boss Thump Milton, warn her to leave well enough alone. Ree can't and won't do that - and this will put her in terrible danger.

Director Debra Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini adapted this film from a (then-unpublished) novel by Daniel Woodrell, whose crime fiction novels have been described as "country noir". Winter's Bone is definitely noir, although when I think "country" I picture Stetson hats and cowboy boots and a good deal more economic prosperity than what's depicted here. Everyone in this unnamed Missouri town seem to lead bleak, dead-end lives in which the men are all drug addicts, the women are all abused wives and no one has a job. People chop firewood for heat, hunt squirrels for food, and leave abandoned cars on their front porches. Even the woods look dull and sickly (although that may have just been the poor picture quality). It's a depressing world, but it's also a fascinating one that the film is highly successful at immersing you in.

'Cos these folks aren't just poor rednecks, they're also cold. One of its great ironies is its depiction of how insular and close-knit these people are (they keep calling the police "the law"), and yet how cruel and callous they are towards each other. Even before Ree is forced to poke around where she's not welcome, there's a general air of suspicion and danger about; when a neighbour makes an offering of some meat, Ree accepts, but reacts to the neighbour's questions about her father with thinly-veiled hostility. What makes Ree's task a titanic one is the conspiracy of silence around everyone she meets - a conspiracy they're willing to maintain with both bald-faced lies and cold-blooded violence. Her father's reputation as a meth cooker means he got involved with some very dangerous people - people whom Ree is not at all prepared to deal with, but whom she unflinchingly insists on facing anyway.

It's a pleasure to watch such an expertly crafted film, one that knows all the tools of filmic storytelling - acting, editing, shot selection, minimal background music - and knows how to use them. Right from its opening minutes, we see how hard the Dollys' lives are, how steadfast Ree is in being their sole caretaker, how much she loves her family, and how much she's sacrificed for them; when she takes her siblings to school, it's clear that she desperately misses going to school herself. There are recurring scenes of Sonny and Ashley playing around the house, happy and carefree unlike anyone else in this world, and we know how lucky they are to have this family - and what it would mean if it were to be broken up. All this without a single line of on-the-nose dialogue, though not that the dialogue is ever on-the-nose. People talk exactly the way movie characters should talk - like real people, saying things real people would say, yet pregnant with meaning and characterisation.

The award nods it's gotten have mostly been for the acting, particularly Jennifer Lawrence's and John Hawkes' performances; they are well-deserved. Lawrence showcases her talent much better here than in X-Men: First Class, where her role was one that any PYT with a vague resemblance to Rebecca Romijn could've played. As Ree, she displays a steel-hard tenacity and unwavering self-pride that make her a terrifically rootable heroine. It's not a showy or attention-grabbing performance, but Lawrence owns it with utter conviction. Hawkes is also terrific as the closest thing to a badass in a movie that largely eschews movie conventions like "badasses". He doesn't even look particularly intimidating, which is what makes his performance as the quietly dangerous Teardrop so effective.

This minimalist, unglamourous, grittily realistic approach is also what makes Winter's Bone such an effective thriller. And it is most definitely a thriller, one that doesn't need flashy directing, explosive action scenes or a pulse-pounding soundtrack (although there is some pretty evocative use of music) to generate edge-of-your-seat suspense. The plot may not all hang together - it's never explained who exactly is in on the conspiracy, and why - and what really happened to Jessup is never fully revealed. But all this doesn't matter to Ree, and it doesn't really matter to the movie. It's a fascinating glimpse into a bleak, brutal world that's rarely seen in the movies, guided by the indomitable spirit of a girl who has a family to save and just isn't going to quit trying.

NEXT REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Expectations: that good meh?


Project Film 365 said...

I love your review of this movie! I just started a blog where I watch a new movie every day for the next year, and I will definitely have to add this to my list. Thanks so much.

TMBF said...

@Project Film 365: Thank you, and good luck with your blog. :)