Friday, December 31, 2010

Finally. A Movie.

Emmylou Harris--"Wayfaring Stranger" (mp3)

Winter's Bone is one of those movies that comes along and restores your faith in the genre.

There is no need to talk about the problems with today's bloated, juvenile, unsatisfying slate of typical Hollywood movies that swap stars and recycle situations. So I won't. Suffice it to say, sometimes a movie really benefits from the restrictions that come with smaller budgets and little-known actors. Such is the case with Winter's Bone.

Plot Synopsis While Revealing Nothing: in rural Missouri, Ree, a 17-year-old girl, forced to raise her younger siblings because her mother's mind has snapped and her father is absent, goes on a search to find her meth-cooking father, because he has used the family property as collateral for his bail, and if/when he no-shows at court, his family, already barely scraping by, will lose the land.

To say that this is one of the most perfectly-acted movies you will see is an understatement. In addition to newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who has rightly generated some Oscar buzz, the film is populated with major and minor roles filled by actors who look vaguely familiar, but more likely from that stop you once made at a small town Wal-Mart than from some other movie you've seen them in. The exception is John Hawkes (of Deadwood fame), who, as Ree's uncle, Teardrop, plays the closest thing to a knight in shining armor she will ever see, and plays the role with more menace than tenderness. "I've always been scared of you," she says at one point when they are most bonded. "That's because you're smart," he responds.

This is a world with its own rules and rulers of drug production and criminal activity, and the law has only tagential control. You don't ask. You don't talk. You don't second guess. You don't challenge. Especially if you are a woman. It is a patriarchal world, where men rule, and women defer to them and justify them and run interference for them. But in a world with such rigid roles for men and women, what happens when a young woman, who is neither broken nor beholdin' to a man, acts on her own maternal instincts?

Because that, of course, is exactly what Ree does, and because she does it, the beauty of the movie emerges. Her dogged assumptions about how families and neighbors and "blood" are supposed to act force everyone around her into actions and conflicts they might otherwise have avoided and might have gotten through their lives never having to deal with. They might wish that Ree would just go away, but she won't, and so a friend must do whatever it takes to get her deadbeat husband's truck, a neighbor must take a horse, an uncle must accept his brother's failings.

And Ree herself is the most fascinating character. She does not expect to rise miraculously above her roots or to escape her upbringing. She may stand inside the high school she once attended, but while the pregnant girls in class may be practicing with dolls, she knows full well that she has real live mouths to feed. She defends her father's reputation as a meth cooker, using her knowledge of his skills as a way of shooting down one theory of what happened to him. Even his abandonment of his family she passes of as one of those things people have to do.

One of the most poignant moments in the film comes when Ree begs her catatonic mother to help her, just this one time, to tell her what to do. The child, forced into an adult world, desperately wants to be a child again, to resume a life with some parental protection, but all her mother can do is to stare into space. Her mother, her role model, her predictor of the path her own life will take, is the most helpless character in her world. Her mother is yet another child to care for. And so, we see Ree's own childrearing patterns take over--she will protect her siblings, but at the same time, she will teach them self-reliance and will not allow them the luxury of being scared.

This is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen, and yet, there is no scene of violence. It's just there. It's there when Teardrop says to Ree, "I already said 'no' with my mouth," implying there are other ways of making the point. It's there in the past history of how disputes are settled. It's there in the way Ree teaches her younger siblings to fire guns for food and protection. It's there in the only way Ree can resolve her situation. It's there in the brutal landscape of wrecked, burned, and broken things scattered everywhere. It's in the air.

Winter's Bone is a film of deep, ironic truth. In a selfish, self-destructive world of dominance and retribution, Ree's quest forces those around her to confront what's left of their own humanity. This is especially true for the women. Because Ree is so close to the edge of survival, stripped of any motive save for the protection of her family, they have no choice but to acknowledge her unwillingness to give up, and the way her female adversaries finally act is one of the most harrowing scenes of this or any year.


Billy said...

Yup. Gonna have to see this one. When I get my refund from Tron: Legacy, I'll spend it to go see this and hope the movie gods will forgive me my trespass.

Bob said...

Billy, thanks for another year.

troutking said...

Yes, sounds like a great one. Have to recommend True Grit, too.

Daisy said...

I second True grit!

BeckEye said...

This is on my end table, still in its Netflix envelope. I'll watch it some time this week...maybe even tomorrow.

jed said...

read about this in Uncut. now i want to saee it even more.