Monday, June 21, 2010

Love: Winter's Bone

When the HBO series True Blood first came out, I remember a bunch of Southerners getting all riled up; not about the graphic violence or hedonism, but because writer Alan Ball was a bit too heavy handed with the Southern stereotypes. I thought that was an overreaction, as some of the best southern stereotypes, especially the one's that hearken back to the Gothic South of Faulkner, are the most believable set pieces when you're talking vampires and things that go bump in the night. But having seen Winter's Bone, I'm starting to understand the plight of the misunderstood Southerners. As a native Missourian watching the film, you're given plenty of Missouri and Ozark stereotypes, with meth addicts instead of naked vampires and swamps, a meth mafia of sort, and formal dialog sometimes overly reminiscent to Huck Finn's various encounters down the Missouri portion of the Mississippi.
The "Huck" of Director Debra Granik's drama Winter's Bone, is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who other than her baby's face is entirely unrecognizable as the 17 year old that she is. With a meth head for a father and mother stricken crazy and catatonic by his behavior, Ree is the soul caretaker of her two young siblings in their small backwoods house in the Southern Missouri Ozarks. When her father skips his bond hearing, Ree's only life line, her family home, is set to be possessed by the State. Unwilling to let her brother, mother, and sister end up in the woods to fend for themselves, Ree undertakes a Twain-like (minus the humor) journey to find her father and bring him back alive or dead with the reluctant help of her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes of HBO's Deadwood).
Granik sets the mood with lonely looks across frozen Ozark hills and close-ups on heavily lined faces. And while the film does get under you skin with it's strange nostalgic sentiment, by the end it feels exploitative. Missouri is the "Meth capital" of the world, but it's a problem almost more recognizable in the cities than it is in the middle of nowhere. And sadly, as romantic as the film makes Ozark poverty seem, the squirrel eating and banjo playing take it a bit too far into the stereotype territory, diminishing the emotional power that film works so hard to develop. It seems a cheap cop out in a film that seems to at least be trying to tell a real story that's unblemished by convention.
Were it not for the haunting performances all around, the film would have slipped into typical art house oblivion, bogged down by these cliches. Jennifer Lawrence is incredible as a young woman contained and strong by nature, not the adversity she faces on a daily basis. One particular scene at the climax of the film (let's just say there's a boat ride involved) makes Lawrence's performance. She's able to communicate the building emotion underneath the surface of the film in what could otherwise have been a ridiculous, corny turn of events. I still can't believe that this is the same girl from The Bill Engvall Show. John Hawkes gaunt face is equally fascinating to watch as his fragile frame oozes a restrained aggression that is both terrifying and impossible to look away from. The various actors that make up the "meth mafia" are equally engaging, helping Hawkes and Lawrence to steer the film into the Shakespearean and away from the obvious. Granik (a better director than the famed Kathryn Bigelow who won the Oscar in 2009 for directing The Hurt Locker), deserves every award for directing that's available, bleeding the emotion and depth from her actors in the subtlest and most successful of ways.

Despite my Missourian complaints, Winter's Bone is the type of movie you want to see acknowledged at the Oscars, the kind that should remind an entire industry that sometimes it's not about the action or the glitz, but the subtle look on an actor's face.




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