Last night I attended a preview screening of Winter's Bone, a Missouri-set thriller from director Debra Granik, which was well received at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of the year. Like all films I try to leave a short comment or review at the Internet Movie Database: here's what I felt about Winter's Bone.
This brutal, thrilling and sparingly touching film might be best described as a Midwest Cosa Nostra movie. Everything about the movie is hard. The images recall John Hillcoat's The Road with its cold, grey landscapes. The children that mitigate against the lifeless woodland don't smile. They are cared for by their sister Ree whose spirit is the sinewy heart of the movie; she doesn't smile either.
Ree's absent father is being hunted for breaking bail and she finds herself between the proverbial rock and hard place. The bail bond is her home but finding her father, dead or alive, means asking questions in a place where folk don't even want to be seen to be answering. Director Debra Granik has an impressive control over the mutually complementary strands of story. The unfolding thriller and the backstory which makes sense of it are told at the same organic pace, without rushing. Everything is revealed through character, none more so than that of the proud, post-pubescently beautiful Jennifer Lawrence. It's an intense but never highly-strung performance, moments of insouciance just as meaningful as those of rage or fear. The supporting cast are all consistently excellent too, managing that sense of wistfulness, weariness and pride that makes the perpetual sense of threat substantial and real.
One gets the impression that there's even more going on in this film. Folk music is persistently featured for its vital associations of hope and joy rather than any shorthand for fusty conservatism. The one interpolation of modernism - raucous hip hop music and the man playing it wearing a gaudy yellow track suit - are simply contemptible.
Indeed the man may be contemptible but his role is not token, providing another angle on the pervasive misogyny that Winter's Bone grapples with. Men are not dismissed, en masse, as bullying and boorish. The subordination of women is represented as socially well-adjusted. Such an anachronism may be a reason why this society finds itself down on its luck, but that's not Debra Granik's subject.
Instead, she uses the threat of a strong woman, in Ree, to fuel the drama. It's possible that the most important part of the film is that in which Ree attempts to join the military, to secure a cash sweetner. This is a precariously delicate scene which has all manner of faint suggestions about women signing up for a fighting force that, in recent memory, has gone abroad to invade patriarchal societies with very little return, in social-revolutionary terms, to show for it. I found the scene with its long echo in the memory at least as eloquent a drama as the conflict-stalemate that is Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.
These latter thoughts are the resonance of a morning's reflection. One shouldn't ignore that the film is a super drama in simple generic terms too.