Saturday, February 19, 2011

Movie Review-Winter's Bone and White Pathology

The writer Ishmael Reed had a serious issue with the HBO series "The Wire". You can read about it here.
In short Reed viewed it as relying on stereotypes about black pathology for the voyeuristic entertainment of white people who refused to critically examine their own troubles. The creator of "The Wire", David Simon, didn't care for that characterization and battle was joined. I respect Reed and have learned a lot from reading his work. But I disagree with his take on "The Wire" though I definitely see his POV. I wonder what Reed would make of the movie "Winter's Bone" which examines white pathology and poverty in the Missouri Ozarks. No Black people were stereotyped or otherwise harmed in the making of this movie. "Winter's Bone" received four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. It already won at Sundance.

The movie opens with Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) playing a tough as nails 17 year old who is the default leader of her family. Her brother and sister are too young to provide for themselves. Her mother is a catatonic depressive and her father is usually away selling or producing drugs. Methamphetamine is the drug of choice though cocaine is also shown. In short, this is a dysfunctional family. Like Michael in "The Wire", Ree takes care of things as best she can. We see her walking her siblings to school and making sure they do their homework.

The sheriff and bondsman arrive to inform Ree that her father Jessup has skipped bond. Ree doesn't really care about that but she learns that because her father signed over the family home to make bail, if he doesn't show for trial, the house will be forfeit. Because she is still a minor she would lose effective custody of her siblings.

This is unacceptable to Ree. Girl or not, Ree is still a Dolly and that means something to her.

Thus armed with nothing more than a stubborn streak, pride and an decided unwillingness to take no for an answer, Ree sets out on an epic search for her father among the local underworld members, most of whom are her own relatives (close and distant) and all of whom seem decidedly and dangerously disinclined to answer any questions or offer any assistance to help her keep her family together.
"Talking just causes witnesses" as one person sagely observes.

This movie was directed by Debra Granik and much like "The Wire" it was shot on location with many local non-actors performing in background roles and acting as formal or informal advisors to keep the movie grounded in reality. The movie captures an unpleasant part of America, from aggressive dogs kept chained in front yards to a sort of ugly Scots-Irish clannish pugnacity that underlies the actions of many characters. Stereotypical signifiers float around, such as the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, broken down machinery, outdoor laundry lines and a living room banjo-led hoedown. But Granik's skill as a director and her interest in the source material ensure that none of this ever goes over the top. The viewer never gets the feeling that she is pointing and laughing at anyone. 

The lighting of the movie is a little dim at times but other than that the cinematography is stark and gorgeous. It's the little things that let you know how dirt poor these people are. Although the defining motif for this movie is bleakness there are still a few people willing to help. Again the little touches, like bringing over food to a hungry family, teaching children how to hunt and dress squirrels, or trying to talk someone out of a bad decision really make this film work.

Taking two strong supporting roles are Dale Dickey who plays the pitiless and relentless Merab, the wife of the local crime boss (to whom Ree is very distantly related) and John Hawkes who plays Teardrop, Ree's cocaine snorting, tatted up uncle. Merab is a mirror image of Ree, older and much harder. Merab is who Ree will be in about 30 years if she remains in that area.  
Teardrop warns Ree away from any investigation. Judging by other people's reactions to him, Teardrop is evidently an extremely dangerous individual. Ree tells him that she's always been scared of him. "That's cause you're smart" is his terse response. Teardrop is not a man you want to get crossways with but Granik shows the human cost of his lifestyle.

There are a few scenes of sudden violence but this film makes its mark with the emotional pain of people refusing to care about this seventeen year old or her family. In the hands of a typical Hollywood director Ree would have been transformed into a riot grrrl capable of kicking behind and taking names in her search for her father. We would have seen cartoonish fight scenes like those of Angelina Jolie in "Salt" or Scarlett Johannson in "Iron Man 2". Fortunately the director didn't take that route. Ree's strength is not in violence but endurance.
It's what's not shown that makes this movie powerful. Violence hurts. It hurts more when it comes from people you thought you could trust. Check this one out.

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