Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser
Director: Debra Granik
Runtime: 100 min.
Verdict: Your typical middlebrow Oscar bait with the annual share of false character arcs and misery-exhibition.
What’s the point of this shot? Below I grab a couple of frames. Have a good look at it. This is a little moment during a scene where our 17-year old protagonist, or let us address her as the film expects and unfortunately demands of us – our 17-year old heroine. She is Ree Dolly (Ms. Lawrence) and she’s out to find out her missing father who has, in his turn, missed a court hearing. The moment below is when she meets this woman in the frame, who happens to have had an extra-marital affair with her father. The woman has a little party going on in her house on account of her Ma’s birthday and there are a whole lot of folks singing and playing cards and drinking and having their definition of a good time.
And I ask again. What’s the point of this kind of a composition? The woman, I don’t remember her name and I don’t remember the film bringing up her name either, is so obviously the subject because in a moment or two from now Ree would knock on the door and this woman would get up and welcome her in and take her inside and talk to her and give her some kind of a lead. If this was a random woman, it might have been acceptable because it would then have been one of those off the cuff moments that pretend to raise a film above the plot by adding a little bit of vérité to the proceedings. But no, this woman is an essential element to resolve the plot, and by having her out of focus in a frame that is pretty equally divided between the foreground and the background, what we’re getting down to here is a composition that seems to make no sense to me. The woman swayed her head to the music and here I was confused about the purpose or nature of the shot, narratively or aesthetically.
And just like this shot, one feels, or to not get too imposing on you dear reader, I feel much of the film exists in neitherland. Winter’s Bone isn’t concerned with following a plot as much as it wants to follow Ree and her family, and provide us one of those voyeuristic pleasures that tend to assuage our primitivist tendencies when we come across a slideshow of poverty. Kitsch is what we call it, and there’s no finer definition of the word then what Milan Kundera supplies. So yeah, Ree is supposed to run from pillar to post to find her dad who happens to have quite a reputation in the local drug manufacturing world. He is missing, and she got to find him in time before the court evicts them off their only house. Misery is rampant but I should it is considerably less melodramatic than a Ron Howard slideshow.
Still, Winter’s Bone is no whodunit. There’s a mystery but the film does not intend to be a puzzle. At least it is not constructed as one, and I would like to give the film the benefit of the doubt, because you see constructing a story is much more of a tough job than merely placing the camera as Ree knocks doors in what could be called a casual cluelessness. Not that it is a problem, but the film does not have even a single shred of an off-the-cuff moment. Those moments which actually satiate our voyeuristic needs. There are lines which only serve to talk about the plot, and there are characters who only come about to advance it. Not a problem again, but then it needs to be an involving mystery, right? So yeah, we are back to neitherland.
This neitherland troubles me. It is a wholly immoral place for a film like Winter’s Bone to be in, since it is supposed to reaffirm the triumph of humanity, and the existence of compassion even in the bleakest of places. I am all for it, but what disturbs me is the way Hollywood gets there most times. This is one of those times, where characters first exhibit bad tendencies, and then a scene reveals their other side. One would remember the Matt Dillon character from Crash. Here, there’s a whole bunch of them. There’s her uncle Teardrop (Mr. Hawkes) who feels positively malevolent when he first appears. The way he psychically handles himself around her even hints a touch of sexual danger against Ree. There’s the woman group who beat Ree to pulp, only to help her later for no particular reason. You see, one cannot argue that this is a case of sudden resurgence of humanity upon realizing Ree’s condition because, hey, this is a small village where everybody knows everybody. There are a handful of houses, one feels. These women, and everybody already know Ree’s condition.
This is the kind of transformation, and this is the kind of vantage point in a narrative is what bothers me. Everybody in this town might be involved in Ree’s tragedy, so to speak, but then there’s a manner to show the moral predicament it causes for them. First showing them as ugly, and then transforming them into good people is a manipulation, not an observation. There’s no breathing space in any of the sequences. There’s no life other than what’s supplied by the script. A drama such as this could learn considerably from Wendy and Lucy in terms of letting the viewer feel it for himself, or Gone Baby Gone on how to go about talking about morality and humanity in a rather bleak world.
What further bothers me about Winter’s Bone is the skewed nature gender equation. Something tells me this is an all-feminine world. I am perfectly alright it, but somehow the guys seem to get a rough deal. I wouldn’t want to dwell too much on that though, because Winter’s Bone is a mediocre middlebrow offering, with no sense of a truth to it. The editing is curious at places, where the cuts jerk you out of the scene. Say for instance, Ree is walking away and the camera cuts to another angle, still from rear, and we just wouldn’t know the purpose. A cut is supposed to transition to the next scene, and when a character is walking away it is an action that is leading to the next event. A cut there, during that action, suggests the scene is continuing, and if it doesn’t, it feels really odd. And trivial. Just as the film.