Tuesday, 4 January 2011
Winter’s Bone: Redneck Noir is a Chilly Affair
Winter’s Bone, an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel of the same name and directed by Debra Granik, tells the story of 17 year-old Ree Dolly who lives in a rural dirt poor area of the Ozark Mountains, Missouri. With her father having absconded while on bail and her mother virtually comatose with depression, it’s left to Ree to keep her and her little brother and sister together and to keep them all fed and warm with little or no money, relying instead upon squirrel hunting, wood gathering and the charity of neighbours. However things take an even bleaker turn when Ree learns her father put up their house as collateral for his bail and that unless he shows up for his trial in a week's time they will lose their home. So doing the only thing she can think to do, Ree decides to head out on her own to find her father and bring him back in time for his court appearance. Knowing that he was part of the local drug trade, she goes looking for him in the most unsavoury of places only to be told in no uncertain terms by those she meets to keep her nose out and to stay clear. But being the tenacious girl she is, Ree refuses to listen, and carries on searching and asking questions, putting her own life at risk in the desperate attempt to keep her family together.
Winter’s Bone is a bleak, harsh, slow-burn story of courage and fortitude in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds and obstacles. It is about the varying strength of family ties and community. It is about the hard cruelty of life in the poorest areas of heartland America. And it is about the destruction and misery of drugs, especially on the poorest in society. But most of all it is a story about strength of character and how one so young can and does step up to the mark to be the kind of person we all hope we could be.
As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic. She is the centre of this story, the foundation upon which the entire film is built. Ree is a smart, tough, caring, industrious and ultimately tenacious and thick-skinned girl who, despite having the weight of the world on her young shoulders, soldiers on to do what she must for the good of her family, no matter the many set backs and abuses received along the way. Twenty year old Jennifer Lawrence is for sure a very pretty girl. But as Ree she carries with her a heavy world worn look that blunts her natural prettiness and which along with a rock solid determination and intelligence makes her seem old beyond her years. It is without doubt a great performance and if I’d seen Winter’s Bone in 2010 then she would have given Natalie Portman a close run for best female performance of the year. On a side note - it’s great to see that Lawrence is playing Mystique/Raven Darkholme in Matthew Vaughan’s upcoming X-Men: First Class, a great casting choice for a film which has the potential to be the very best of the year.
Anyway, back to Winter’s Bone. Debra Granik’s direction is focussed and naturalistic. There are no visual or creative ticks. The camera, often handheld, simply follows the characters around while catching occasional glimpses of the depressing, worn-out human landscape of rotting houses, rotting vehicles and discarded trash that pollute what is an otherwise beautiful part of the world. The pace is slow and steady and patience is required from the viewer. Also, be warned, the film is no laugh fest. Humour is almost entirely absent. It is an unrelentingly grim, grey, chilly tale featuring unpleasant characters that do unpleasant things and will definitely not be to a lot of people’s tastes. However if you stick with it, you’ll find that it’s also oddly life affirming too, being as it is about family, community, sacrifice and determination in the face of adversity.
I recently heard the term ‘red neck noir’ used by someone to describe this film. And it’s quite a good one as Ree is in effect a young Philip Marlowe type who is out to solve a mystery no matter the consequences and the physical traumas she must endure along the way. But unlike the also excellent Brick, Winter’s Bone doesn’t employ the many conventions of the genre and transplant them to a new setting. Instead, it tells a fairly simple story with no great twists or surprises from a realistic and purely character based angle. And it does so very well indeed. 4 (out of 5)