Monday, August 2, 2010

MIFF 2010 Review: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone
Dir. Debra Granik
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: TBC
Running Time: 100mins

Debra Granik came to prominence with her debut feature Down to the Bone, which put a spotlight on an up-and-coming actress named Vera Farmiga who would go on to win the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle Award for her performance and, five years later, become an Oscar-nominee for the George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air. With her second film Granik has cast another up-and-coming actress in the form of Jennifer Lawrence. I have not seen Down to the Bone (it went direct-to-DVD here in Australia,) but it seems obvious that Granik has an eye for spotting talent. I am not too sure, however, whether the film in this case holds up like the performances of her 20-year-old star and those around her.

Lawrence plays "Ree Dolly", a 17-year-old whose meth-cooking father has disappeared, leaving her to care for a near-catatonic mother and two younger siblings. She chops wood, scrounges food for the family horse, teaches her brother and sister how to shoot for squirrel and how to cook moose soup while trying to locate the father who has placed their lowly Missouri home as a part of his Bond to be released from prison. Without him they will lose the house and they're out on the street (or, more likely, the dusty dirty road since this town doesn't appear to have too many paved streets).

The sub-sub-genre of movies about hard-done by women doing what they have to do to get by has had some true, honest to God astonishing movies in the last ten years. Primarily Kimberley Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, Patty Jenkins' Monster and Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, all of which Winter's Bone probably owes some sort of debt. Where Granik's film differs is in its protagonist. Lawrence's Ree Dolly is not as powerful a character as the leads in those three films - all of which garnered Oscar nominations (and a couple of wins) for their leading ladies - in that she doesn't go through any big change. She doesn't have a big moment that will pull on the heartstrings of audience members. In fact, she barely changes at all from the opening scene to the last. She doesn't create strength or discover anything within her she never knew she had, which is something that rids the film of something structurally crucial.

Therein lies the problem with Winter's Bone. A set up so filled with possibility, a white-trash Twin Peaks if you will where secret organisations and double-crossings are the norm, but Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, doesn't do enough with it. Once the mystery of where her father is resolved - a solidly plotted mystery, that must be said, with several excellently filmed setpieces - the film just seems to end with no dramatic arc having been completed. The most powerful scene comes early when Ree must walk her siblings to school and sees the friends and the life she was forced to give up so she could become the mother she is far too young to be.

Lawrence is very good in the lead role, but it's in the supporting roles where the film truly shines. John Hawkes receives Best in Show honours as the uncle who knows more than he's letting on. Dale Dickey, a woman whose face is so recognisable and distinct, is also powerful as a local who tries to warn Ree of the ring of trouble she's stepping into. Garret Dillahunt is a surprise addition to the cast as the local sheriff while newcomer Lauren Sweetser shows strong support as Ree’s best friend. Granik's cinematographer Michael McDonough and production designer Mark White should also be congratulated for their accomplished work making this tiny town of farmers and gamblers look as authentic as it does.

It's just a shame that, in the end, Winter's Bone proves to be such a strangely uninvolving film. It starts, some events happen, and then it ends and everything is just as it was 100 minutes earlier. The film is worthy for its performances, and Lawrence has already used this calling card to her advantage by scoring a big role in X-Men: First Class, but audiences shouldn't expect something of brute force. It's quiet, unassuming and coasts through its running time without ever raising much of a sweat. It will work for others, but me? Not so much. C+


richardwatts said...

"She doesn't have a big moment that will pull on the heartstrings of audience members."

Umm, I thought the scene at the lake (trying to avoid spoilers here) was very much her big moment!

Glenn Dunks said...

Really? But... she doesn't really do anything but grit her teeth. To each their own, I guess.