Friday, November 5, 2010

Review: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone
Dir. Debra Granik
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 100mins

Indifference to a certain movie is a feeling that can be the most disappointing of all. It can be as well made, wonderfully performed and nicely shot as anything, but if it fails to make even the slightest dent in the grooves of my brain or the pumping veins of my heart then it's all for nothing. Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is one of those movies for me. It's not even that I look upon it with distaste or negativity of any tangible kind, it just did nothing for me on a gut level. It exists and that's about the extent of my feeling towards it. I guess that's negative all on its own, but I wouldn't call it a "bad movie" so much as just one that failed to enliven in the faintest of fires within, which is something that even the worst of film's can do by pure virtue of its failure.

Jennifer 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 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. Ree Dolly is such a blank slate of a character that it’s hard to register anything about her. It was like there was a disconnect between her and world and while Lawrence portrays that quite nicely, the character is just a bore. It takes somebody roughing her up to get so much as an inflection in her voice.

Perhaps it's because I hail from a place of thought that doesn't place realism at the top of the cinematic food chain. To tell you the truth, I wasn't all that impressed that Granik was able to portray the world of the Ozarks so truthfully - in fact, since she filmed in the region and even used some non actors I would expect nothing less - because the story failed to grab me. I felt no immediacy of narrative thrust, which is disconcerting since the film is about a missing family member who may or may not have been killed by local drug cookers. Winter's Bone could be the most honest to god representation of the state of Missouri ever seen on the cinema screen, but when the filmmaker is so passive elsewhere it was hardly relevant.

Debra Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, doesn't do enough with this potentially juicy set up, a white-trash Twin Peaks, if you will, where secret organisations and double-crossings are the norm, that features a solid if unremarkable central mystery. There are some wonderful individual moments - several involving the potential for military enrollment and another quite grisly chainsaw sequence - that reinforce the idea of a young girl who has been forced to abandon her own life for the sake of her family, but so little dramatic heft is given to it that it just glides on by and then it ends with nobody having changed or learning a thing. A really fascinating film could be made from some of these strands, but I'm not in the desire to review films that don't exist.

Lawrence is quite good in the lead role, although her character's passivity does her no favours at times, but it's in the supporting roles where the film truly shines. John Hawkes as the uncle who knows more than he's letting on gives his best performance since Me & You & Everyone We Know. Dale Dickey, a woman whose face is so recognisable and distinct, manages Best in Show honours 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. 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.

If this review sounds a bit bipolar it's because it is. There is quite a bit to recommend about Winter's Bone and I am certainly in the minority with my opinion on the piece, but I just cannot ignore the simple fact that as the credits rolled I did not feel a single thing. I'm sure Ree Dolly would find that quite apt since by film's end her reaction is that of someone who just wandered around in circles for days on end rather than having just discovered the truth behind the disappearance of her father. C+

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