Monday, 25 October 2010

The roughest road

I saw Inception earlier this year, the summer blockbuster staring Leonardo di Caprio. It was typical mass-market fodder, full of expensive wow me special effects with a storyline that defied even the most determined attempts at the suspension of disbelief. At the end of my review (Dream on) I wrote that I was thinking of giving up altogether on Anglo-Saxon film makers, giving up on movies that are full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Not anymore; for I recently saw Winter’s Bone, a movie that may not have much in the way of sound and fury but if signifies something, it most certainly does, an intelligent story wonderfully told with a singularly impressive lead performance. Directed by Debra Granik and based on a 2006 novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is one of the gems that emerge occasionally from the American independent sector.

It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival, premièring in this country in June at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s now tipped for further success at next year’s Oscars. One can never be sure with this kind of gossip, but if true it will be well deserved, if only for the performance, the astonishing performance, of twenty-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.

Most of us will be familiar with depictions of America through movies like Sex and the City or Wall Street, glib, superficial, instantly forgettable multiplex fodder. Winter’s Bone is another America altogether, a rural America, a poor America, a clannish America…and a dangerous America. It’s set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, a land of secrets and lies.

This is a place were few modern attitudes have penetrated; where the brutish men order and the cowed women obey; where outsiders are greeted with blank unwelcoming stares, where the greatest offence is to break the unspoken oath of silence. Everyone is related in some way or other to everyone else, though there is little in the way of kin sympathy. Front yards exist only as dumps for old cars and trucks. Here Poverty is king and Penury queen.

This is the kind of place where people hunt to eat, deer if they can get it, squirrels if they can’t. It’s hillbilly country, the kind of place that probably once lived by manufacturing and selling illegal moonshine. The modern product is altogether more lethal – methamphetamine, a dangerously addictive drug, known from its crumbly off-white appearance as peanut butter crank, or simply as crank.

It’s the world of Ree Dolly, played by Lawrence, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives with her mother and younger brother and sister. Her mother is in a catatonic state of depression, taken there, one suspects, by a lifetime of emptiness and disappointment. The responsibility of taking care of the family falls on Ree, resourceful and proud, a responsibility she carries out with loving devotion, teaching her siblings how to shoot at one moment and how to spell at the next.

There is so much I could say about Lawrence’s performance but that would risk going on interminably. I will say that it’s almost iconic; that she plays a strong woman and a frightened teenager by turns; that she sets out on a personal Odyssey that carries her into the lair of the Cyclops, a journey she insists on taking in the face of warning, threats and violence.

Like the rest of the men in the area Ree’s father is a manufacturer of crank with connections to the local criminal network, a hillbilly mafia. He has been caught and charged, released after posting bail. A court date has been set, but he is missing. The local sheriff shows up at the Dolly’s ramshackle property. Unable to communicate with the mother, he tells Ree, the only responsible adult, that the bail posted is the family home and that if her father does not show at the due date they will have to leave.

Faced with homelessness and determined to keep the family together, Ree sets out in pursuit of her father. Wherever she goes she meets with hostility, both from her immediate relations and her wider ‘kin.’ These people know the truth, know the consequences for the Dollys of the father’s absence, but still refuse to talk. Her uncle, known as Teardrop, an excellent performance by John Hawkes, is sympathetic and violent by turns, fearful of going against the code of the mountains, though in the end he manages to acquire some residual courage.

But Ree will not give up. Her journey, becoming more dangerous and darker by degrees, eventually leads to an encounter with shadowy clan chief, a figure known as Little Arthur, played by Kevin Breznahan. It’s the moment of greatest peril. She has been severely beaten up by the clan harpies. Her life is in immediate danger. Still she loses none of her resolve in her determination to save her family. In the end she does, though there is one final gruelling ordeal to go through, which takes her to a lake, to the truth and to a gruesome token.

Winter’s Bone is directed with considerable skill, a mystery and a thriller, brooding and menacing, a sojourn into a modern heart of darkness, not in some distant savage land but a forgotten part of the world of Starbucks and condominiums. It’s difficult to avoid clichés; time does not stand still in the Ozarks; time is irrelevant. This movie will stay with me for a long time, a progress of a girl through the lands of Giant Despair, armoured only with courage and succeeding in hope.

There are times, rare occasions, when acting is more than acting, where distance is crossed and boundaries dissolved. Jennifer Lawrence has crossed that distance, by word, by deed, by expression, by emotion and by gesture. She is unforgettable.


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  5. Based on Maugham's novella, I assume? Thanks for reminding me about the Hancock. I'm now about half way through but other things keep getting in the way!

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  7. This sounds like an interesting movie. We still do have some inbreds in the hills and trailer parks.

  8. Compelling trailer. I'll look for it.

  9. Anthony, I know these communities are 'close knit' in more ways than one!

  10. Calvin, do let me know what you think if you manage to see it.

  11. Thus Auden:

    The sense of danger must not disappear:
    The way is certainly both short and steep,
    However gradual it looks from here;
    Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

  12. I'm really glad you got to see a great film about rural America. Still, I have to correct you on a few facts:

    1) The Ozarks were never a manufacturing region. The industry in this area was located further North in an area called the Great North that extends approximately from St. Louis to the Canadian Border, placed there because it was the termination point of 4 different trans-continental railroad lines. Like most other mountainous areas of the South, the Ozarks were populated by land seekers who couldn't find land anywhere else, and were really the last area of America settled this way. The Ozarks are awful farmland, but are far away from any central authority and cheap, and thus attracted redneck types who didn't want to be under the nose of law and order and didn't want to work for anybody else either.

    2) America is a huge, huge country. All of Europe, British Isles, et cetera, discluding Russia would fit in the United States. It has a lot of different rural areas, and a lot of different urban areas as well. You could spend your entire life trekking across America and still not see all of it. But yes, the Ozarks are most certainly a part of it, have always been a hostile place, and will probably always be a hostile place. For a really great comic musical about the Ozarks, I recommend "Little Abner."

  13. Jeremy, I'm happy to be corrected on points of fact, but when I say it was a 'manufacturing area' I meant of illegal products like moonshine and crank. I'm guessing the former although the movie is pretty explicit about the latter. Yes, the people were generally hostile and self-contained, but I think this is probably a feature of highland communities across the world.

  14. @Ana: Cascade mountains of Washington State aren't like that at all, then again it's different there because the people who came to the Cascades came to work on the railroads, logging camps, and cattle ranches, usually from other earlier settled areas of Washington. They're actually some of the friendliest and most open people in the state, though then again the major thoroughfares run through their towns, and the areas outside of these towns are too rugged and inhospitable to be long-term habitable to human life. These towns only exist because of the engineering of the railroad companies and highway bureaus - without the explosives and the cement, nothing but grizzly bears and elk would live there. That's the difference.

    In any case, I apologize if I seemed condescending. I figured you had assumed from their mentality that they seemed like Manchester people.

  15. Not at all, Jeremy. I just wonder if there is a different sense in which the word 'manufacture' is used here and the States? Here it simply means making things, legal or illegal, from the largest industrial enterprise to the smallest cottage industry.

  16. Yeah the word here is used more to refer to heavy industry. If it's not big and industrial, we don't call it manufacturing.

  17. Two peoples divided by a common language. :-)