REVIEW: Winter's Bone a Little Too Pleased With its Own Folky Bleakness
Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is one of those movies -- like last year's inner-city down-a-thon, Precious -- that can't quite make a distinction between profundity and plain old bleakness. The story of a 17-year-old girl in rural Missouri who's desperate to find her ex-con father (he's skipped bail, endangering not just the family's modest house but its very survival), Winter's Bone often feels stiffly self-conscious: Even though it's based on a novel, it has the aura of a gritty documentary, as if Granik distrusted the idea that fiction alone could ever be good enough to get to the truth of human lives.
The movie's saving grace is that Granik doesn't let her actors down, particularly her young star, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence plays the movie's central character, Ree, a young woman who carries the weight of her family on her shoulders, which turns out to be much heavier than the weight of the world. Ree not only looks after her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson), with a degree of authority unmatched by most fully grown-up parents (she even teaches them how to hunt, and skin, squirrel as a means of survival); she must also care for her mentally ill mother, who appears to have been driven to madness by her husband's unreliability. (It's never made clear if he ever had a profession, other than cooking crystal meth.)
When Ree learns she and her family will be turned out of the house unless she finds her missing father, she turns to anyone in the community who might help, including her gaunt, coked-out uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), who alternately threatens her and protects her; and a neighboring clan, with Mafia-like power, whose bully patriarch is protected by a thuggish woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). When Ree tentatively approaches Merab's shack to ask for help -- she's mindful, as Merab reminds her, that there's bad blood between the two families -- Merab shoots back, with a haggish cackle, "Ain't you got no men that could do this?" The suggestion is that we're dealing with a community where the women bear much of the responsibility for getting things done, while the men just go around doing (or making) drugs and intimidating people -- providing they're around at all.
This is, admittedly, a world most of us don't live in, and Granik sets the scene meticulously. The movie opens with shots of Ree's little sister and brother playing happily in their dirt yard; at one point Ashlee tenderly lifts a tiny kitten from a cardboard box. That opening, as well as much of the movie that follows, straddles a fine line between affectation and conscientious realism. Winter's Bone is set (and was filmed) in the Ozarks, and Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough capture the melancholy beauty of the landscape: There's plenty of rough majesty in its dirt roads lined with naked-looking pine trees.
But there are also places where the movie's characters veer too close to broad caricature. Winter's Bone is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, adapted for the screen by Granik and Anne Rosellini, and it took several prizes at Sundance earlier this year. (Granik's first feature, the 2004 Down to the Bone, in which Vera Farmiga played a working-class, cocaine-using mom, was similarly acclaimed.) Winter's Bone is striving to tell a story that's rooted, in some way, in real life. Still, I'm always a little nervous when a filmmaker shows us overweight people who may or may not be missing significant teeth, wearing battered fleece pullovers or rumpled plaid shirts flung over dirty T-shirts. I'm not saying people don't ever look like that in real life; it's simply that those conventions are too often used to denote a filmmaker's idea of real life. Clearly, Granik doesn't intend to condescend to her characters. But there's no getting around the fact that to her they represent a mysterious "other," mountain people with customs unto themselves, and too often in Winter's Bone, they come off more as symbols than as human beings.
It doesn't help that the language that flows out of their mouths often sounds less like the way people really talk than like screenwriter-ese. Explaining to her best friend (played, with appealing sharpness, by Lauren Sweetser) why a neighboring family is willing to adopt Sonny but not Ashlee, Ree says, "She don't shine for them." Oh, those country people, with their simple ways! Poetry flows from their lips even when they aint a-lookin'.
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