Tuesday 2 November 2010

Winter's Bone

There are certain movies that, as you see them in a cinema surrounded by strangers, seem too intimate to be enjoyed in that setting. There is of course something to be said for the experience of shock and trauma in a community rather than alone, but on the other hand, movies like Christian Petzold's Gespenster or Nobody Knows by Hirokazu Koreeda are so haunting on a personal level that the presence of other people seems to be absurd. I think context (as in – where and under which circumstances you see a movie) is relevant here, because witnessing the reactions of other people in this indirect way, not by discussing the movie, but by hearing the audible sounds of shock and terror, adds another layer to how I understand and interpret the movie. I will have a similar introduction when I discuss Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt. I saw both movies at the Vienna International Film Festival – which means that the only thing I knew beforehand was a vague description in the festival guide, but now detailed reviews, no opinions by other people. I watched it completely unspoilt (I also still haven’t read the novel by Daniel Woodrell), and most of the audience probably went into it exactly the same way.
Winter’s Bone is defined by an absence. An absence of cities, and absence of stories, an absence of opportunities, an absence of the state, apart from the police which threatens and the military which is the only employer left. It is set in the Ozark Mountains, a region anyone would describe as lacking in infrastructure if Winter’s Bone did not explore the informal structures that seem to have always existed there and probably will survive, considering how deeply ingrained they are in society. The people there are mostly related and follow an unspoken, archaic code of honour. The only industry is the drug business, and almost everybody we meet is touched by it: they have family that is involved, they are addicted, they deal or cook meth, or they pursue those that do.
Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is the person we follow through this landscape. She is a seventeen year old girl with an absent father and a catatonic mother (towards the end of the movie she says, matter-of-factly, that her mother will never get better), and two siblings who “can’t feed themselves yet”. She carries the entire responsibility for her family, and she does it with a stoic braveness, a stunning heroism. There isn’t much dialogue throughout the film, so her face, her gestures, the subtle changes in her expressions, are the anchor. It’s not just the woods that reminded me of Wendy & Lucy: it’s also the way that this movie succeeds because of its strong lead actress who carries the burden, and how a very simple story told consequently can be so much more effective than a complicated one that lack focus.
The story itself is simple: Ree finds out that her father has used the house, which is their only property, to pay his bond, and since he is now missing, they will use their home. Ree has to locate her father before she loses everything, but this turns out to be a difficult task, because, as the film slowly reveals, her father was killed because the he broke the code of never talking to the police, and without the body, she can not prove that he is dead.
Ree tries to navigate the rules of the family: she asks for help, but is turned down again and again, and told to stop looking. The women she visits guard the entrances to the men, who seem to be unreachable patriarchs. The roles they can play are strictly assigned, and Ree isn’t just breaking the rule of never asking any questions, she is also breaking out of the clearly defined spectrum of things women are allowed to do (once she is asked if she doesn’t have a man to do all this for her). Sometimes, there is unexpected kindness (the neighbours provide her with food and medicine, despite the lack of resources, Ree allows her siblings to adopt a dog they’ve found, the children seem genuinely happy with the little they’ve got, and almost completely sheltered from the horrible things that are happening), but there is also incredible violence as the tightly knit community tries to contain Ree – hurting her physically to stop her from looking, at a point where the best case scenario is finding the body of her father, and the only thing that she can come up with is joining the military (a recruitment officer tells her that the brave thing to do would be staying at home, which, considering what we have seen her do in the film so far, seems like an absurd statement).
The central scene is where my introduction comes back into play: it is so horribly uncomfortable, and at the same time, not graphic at all. It was a strange experience to see a room full of strangers experience this at the same time. It is a scene that is about what has happened to Ree, and how she never gives up, even after the things that she had to do and that have been done to her.
There were scenes in the movie that felt strange to me, mostly the confrontations between the characters: they speak in short, pointed statements, never a word too much, and even kindness comes this way. Even though the portrayal is authentic, there is an artistic artificiality to it that makes Winter’s Bone sound like a Western from time to time, or a film noir (it has earned the label of country noir) – a little bit like Rian Johnson’s Brick, but much more subtle. When Ree realizes that nobody is willing to help her, she reminds them of what she learned about family: “aren’t we all supposed to be kin?” – and with its lack of modern technology (with the exception of one new car), there is almost an apocalyptic quality to this movie: there seems to be no outside world, this place is completely self-contained. When there is no food, Ree goes into the woods to show her siblings how to hung for squirrels (the film in general pays a lot of attention to how things are done – how meat is prepared, how food is cooked, how wood turns into fuel, how music is made).
The ending is ambiguous: on the one hand, she tells her siblings that she “would be lost without the weight of your on my back”. On the other hand, the uncle (John Hawkes), who has turned from a frightening figure to a person Ree can trust, once again follows an ancient law: he has to take revenge for his brother, and there is probably no way that this circle will ever be broken.

2010, directed by Debra Granik, starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser, Ashlee Thompson, Casey MacLaren.

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