Monday, 20 September 2010

Review : Winter's Bone

The Ozark Mountains in Missouri isn’t a go-to location for Hollywood filmmakers. It’s a part of America that barely registers on government agendas, let alone on film, yet is also perhaps it’s most impoverished region where drug addiction is simply a way of life for many communities. Perhaps it’s the nature of its’ isolation from the rest of the country, both geographical and cultural, that keeps it off the radar, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that has allowed the crystal methamphetamine subculture to flourish. Yet these people represent a unique part of Americana, closed communities (to outsiders that is) that can trace their bloodlines back generations and with fiercely protective relationships to the land and each other, whose necessitated survivalist mentality hides it’s only thriving sub-economy, drug manufacture and sale, from both the eyes of the law and prevents the possibility of escape.

It’s against this backdrop that second time feature filmmaker Debra Granik sets Winter’s Bone. A thoroughly gripping mystery noir thriller that features a star-making lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence, Granik directs with great respect and sensitivity for her subject and its’ communities, with many locals taking supporting roles. There’s no ‘poverty tourism’ here. Whilst Granik offers no judgments on her characters, she’s unafraid to dramatise their worst and questions of whether moral obligations should supercede those of community are keenly asked.

Lawrence plays Ree, carer for her severely depressed mother and two younger siblings. Barely able to feed the family as it is, she receives a visit from the local sheriff, informing her that her father Jessop has skipped bail and that if he doesn’t show up for his forthcoming court date, the home he put up as collateral will be taken from them. Trouble is, no one knows where Jessop is, and if they do, they’re not willing to talk about it with anyone, least of all his daughter.

Ree sets off determined to uncover what happened to her father, with an air of menace and the threat of violence shadowing her every step. Her neighbours are self-governed, violent people (and that’s just the women), all seemingly related in one way or another, and clearly knowledgeable of the truth regarding Jessop’s disappearance. Much like the mafia, there are powerful codes of silence and respect that are rigidly adhered to, especially for insiders, and a young woman in this patriarchal society digging for answers is met first with silence then with a violently begrudged acquiescence after the involvement of her uncle Teardrop (a stunning performance by Deadwood’s John Hawkes). These conflicting notions of family are at the heart of Winter’s Bone, as is the question of how far one can go to survive when all social and economic factors are lined up against you.

Often incredibly tense, Granik doesn’t set her film up as a thriller, the thrills come from the bending of these societal codes and the unflinching dramatic momentum anchored in Lawrence’s performance. Scenes of her teaching her younger siblings survival techniques, such as how to shoot and skin a squirrel or how to cook deer stew, carry such a sense of dread that you’re truly unaware of whether Ree will make it to the end of her quest. A truly frightening turn by Dale Dickey as Mareb, wife of community lynchpin Little Arthur, culminates in a scene of white-knuckle terror towards the end when she frogmarches Ree towards a lake, stopping only to take a chainsaw from the back of her car.

Shot with a stunning sense of the place and landscape, there’s almost something otherworldly about the mountains of Winter’s Bone, in any other context they’d pass for some kind of post-apocalyptic skeletal remains of a community, like something from The Road (2009) an image echoed in the forgotten, burnt-out ‘cookhouse’ that Ree comes across. It’s a brilliantly crafted film about a forgotten corner of America that deserves your attention, and come Oscar season will demand it.

Winter's Bone - 2010 - USA - 100 mins - Dir : Debra Granik

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