In honor of all the bitter winter blankets having their way with the Northeast US these past few weeks and raging about as I write this, here is a review a Southern-fried noir that uses its frigid late year mystery to chill to the bone.
Debra Granik is not yet a filmmaker of breadth, having made less than a handful of films in her decade of slow-going work behind the camera, but she is a filmmaker of uncommon craft and peculiarity. Her works are less art and more skill, tactically and restlessly un-spooling a fable of purity and soothsaying innocence onto the screen like a storyteller for the ages. She grounds the film in enough of an air of hidebound realist respectability to avoid some of the trappings of her somewhat exploitative premise but also knows how to elevate beyond the doldrums of blind adherence to naturalism and into something more timeless and, for lack of a better term, classically adventurous. Her film may put on airs of honest down-South character-and-place construction, and it is all of this, but there’s a coming-of-age tale at the center of her work, enhanced by a tone that more closely approximates folkloric allegory and tall tale than character study.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) takes care of her entire family in the absence of her father, who is out on bail for manufacturing meth and has currently disappeared. Her mother is mentally ill, and her younger siblings need training to survive (no one can thrive) in the lashing, throttling winds and the wooded decay that hides festering, unsymmetrical secrets in the rural Ozark mountains. She’s an unnaturally, prematurely knowing child, aware of the world’s dangers and the ways its veneer of civilization hides a bitter cynicism and selfishness. If that isn’t enough, however, her father had put up her house as collateral for his parole, and if he misses his upcoming parole meeting, the government will take Ree’s house away, dooming her family by taking the only semblance of normality they know.
There’s a dominant naturalism to everything in Winter’s Bone that helps Granik’s film exist around and within her characters even when the script veers slightly off course into characterizing the rural folk Ree knows all too well through a lens of confrontation rather than community. It is, after all, a film about Ree and her adventure, and her trek through the dark places that consume the world around her calls for antagonists, positions filled primarily by others among the rural poor who are in some way responsible for her father’s disappearance, rather than per-se a system of impoverishment that hinders them all together. Still, Granik’s fundamental naturalism keeps the film in the know, linking it to a certain respect for its characters that doesn’t live above them or make play with their wills but instead seeks to know them.
Whether it wishes to know them as people is another question, however. For, if Granik’s tone asks that we confirm her naturalism, it never prefers full-on realism. Filmically, this is fine; we absolutely need more slow-burn family dramas of this sort that break free of the shackles of gritty realism and strive for something entirely more poetic and artistically inspired (realism these days seems more a crutch than anything). Michael Mcdonough’s stunning cinematography coats the film in a misty expressionism that elevates the material above realism, going for a sort of noirish venture wherein the types that Lawrence encounters are less people than dark longitudinal spaces in the crowded, unkempt Southern expanse. The end result is rather both the same and the opposite of what David Gordon Green achieved in his Southern parables: like him, Granik trades in realism for a sort of Southern magic that aims to capture the essence of a place and not its surface realities, except while Green went for gliding impressionism Granik pursues an almost midnight cinema level of horror to darken and brutalize her edgy directing and convey the otherworldly rural South as it exists in the mind of a teenager coping with the nightmarish fright of a lonely wooded wasteland.
At some level then, Winter’s Bone is a rather explicit almost-horror, where-in the central theme of any horror, the mundane invaded by the otherworldly and uncanny, is transplanted almost undiluted into a Southern hellscape where trees-like-claws and muddy water hide secrets of uncommon depth and impenetrable mystery. It’s a harsh film for this reason, but within harshness, the film finds a warm, human center in Lawrence, in a shockingly old-school star-making turn of the type we don’t much see today. If the film is ultimately a low-and-slow fable about her confronting the dark side of the human existence and walking away a changed person, the character’s fundamental humanity rests precisely on her shoulders, cutting through the at-times frigid, rigid tone with a burst of nervy, fleshy warmth simmering and slowly dying in the darkness around her. It’s a piece of decidedly physical acting, yet it is all about how much she restrains and doesn’t show in selling the character’s confused form of determination and distinctly somber demeanor. It’s an altogether wonderful bit of acting without the capital A.
I’m not entirely convinced about the morality of the whole affair – the thriller mechanics and fable-like tone do a lot to portray many of the criminal Ozarks as evil rather than impoverished, and this doesn’t do much for any would-be claim that Granik’s film intends to sympathize with her mountainous, steely-eyed inhabitants who often approach us more like mysterious snakes than any variety of empathetic humans. And portions of the film seem a tad hopeless in a way that borders on exploiting poverty for a miserablist tale of terror. But, in general, Granik’s film is no worse for wear, and Lawrence’s anguished, mythical saga works like as a siphon of slowly crawling molasses stricken with the biting brutality of the harsh, omnipresent snow. It’s the sort of story carried in by the whispers of the snow itself, spoken about in hushed tones around a campfire, and carried forth on fleeting winds from bitter parent to child for years to come.