Monday, 27 September 2010

'Winter's Bone' review:

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, 'Winter's Bone' is a gritty thriller adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell. The story concerns a young girl, Ree, who is forced by circumstances (a drug-addicted mother and a father absent through imprisonment) to raise her two young siblings in harsh surroundings of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, facing immense poverty. Things quickly get worse for Ree when she learns from the local sheriff that her father has left prison, using the family's meager home as his bail bond and that he is nowhere to be found. Ree then sets on a quest to find out what happened to her father in order to save the family home. Is he dead or alive? That is what Ree must discover, and in doing so she must ask a lot of people a lot questions - and not everybody in the small community appreciates it.

Written and directed by Debra Granik, the film stars the young Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. A compelling young actress, I first saw Lawrence Arriaga's 2008 drama 'The Burning Plain', and she is without doubt the best thing about the film, convincing as a tough and capable girl whilst also seeming vulnerable and often desperate. It is Lawrence who carries the film and it's successes are hers. Also good is John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree's uncle who exhibits a quiet menace as well as warmth and somehow dignity (in spite of his drug dependency and unkempt demeanour). Ree exists in a small town with few options for people of her social class. It is made clear during one scene (in which Ree walks through her high-school) that the only opportunities on offer for most kids are joining the army or having a baby. It is a bleak look at what I suspect for many poor, working class (well, technically lumpenproletariat) Americans is a grim reality.

Yet 'Winter's Bone' troubled me a little, feeling like a sort of "poverty porn" film, taking pride in its ugliness and spending so much of its time focused on "grim realities" that it began feel a little forced. It's a sort of middle-class oriented poverty safari. I suppose much of the same could be said about last year's Sundance winner, 'Precious', and 'Winter's Bone' is similarly relentless in the way things get worse and worse for our protagonist.

Another thing that diminished the film for me, cutting its impact in half, was the sense that I'd seen much of it before and done better, and by another film with a seasonal title. The 2008 film 'Frozen River' (also a Sundance prize winner and also made by a female director in Courtney Hunt) also looks at American, small town poverty from the perspective of one woman. In this case the woman (the Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo) was looking for her husband rather than her father, but for essentially the same reason: to save her home and protect her two children. But 'Frozen River' feels more authentic, being based on the genuine realities of life for people in that part of Upstate New York, and the harshness of the landscape is more visceral - the cold feels colder - and any suspense or thrill is generated by an emotional interest in Leo's character.

'Winter's Bone' enters more traditional thriller territory, generating suspense by way of threat and even violence, featuring a gang of unfriendly locals that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie, or even a horror video game. It's riddled with cliché "why don't you just turn around and go on back home missy" dialogue and the people and the mise en scène feel like something out of John Hillcoat's adaptation of 'The Road'. The climax of Ree's story is so obviously tailor made to be edgy and disturbing that it ends up feeling slightly ridiculous.

This isn't the last we'll hear of 'Winter's Bone', however. Jennifer Lawrence is hotly tipped to receive an Oscar nomination, and she will deserve it. I hope and expect that there is much more to come from her. But for Debra Granik, whose first feature ('Down to the Bone') was similarly focused on poverty, drug use and the struggle to raise children under these circumstances, I can only see more Sundance-friendly liberal condescension. Middle-class experience, it seems, is not "real" enough as a subject matter. And the poverty safari rolls on in hope of finding some new tragedy around the next corner. Meanwhile, pampered Hollywood actors prepare to cover their perfect faces in dirt all over again in their continuing quest to win golden statues. Now there is a hideous borgeous reality Granik should know something about.

'Winter's Bone' is out now in the UK on a limited release. It has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

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