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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Film Review | Winter's Bone

Cold Mountain

by Thomas Delapa

Almost six months—and two seasons—after it won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury prize, Winter’s Bone has been tossed into theaters, where its reception has ranged from frosty to feverish. That’s not surprising. By now, even art-house aficionados might be wary of Sundance’s predilection for dour independent dramas that are almost impossible to warm up to.

In bringing Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 “country noir” novel to the screen, director Debra Granik is visually diligent to extremes, sacrificing plot and character for bleakly naturalistic atmospherics. Set in the Missouri Ozarks, the bare-bones story sends one young woman on a lone, near-mythical quest to save her family from ruin. Before she’s done, 17-year-old Ree Dolly will have to summon the gumption to face down everyone from the local sheriff and burly bail bondsmen to icy neighbors and even her own crooked, meth-cooking clan.

Habeas Corpus might be a better title for this low-budget feature, since it’s the mysterious disappearance of Ree’s father that sends Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) on her perilous journey. Habitual criminal Jessup Dolly has jumped bail, and he’s put his family’s scruffy log-cabin homestead down for collateral. If Ree doesn’t find him right quick, she and her family will be left out in the Missouri cold.

Audiences simply looking for a scrupulous rendering of backwoods mid-America will find it in Granik’s dense, arresting visuals. Seemingly frozen in time (and attitudes), this is the sort of backwards Americana that the rest of the country has tried to forget, where rusty Ford pick-ups rule the dirt roads and locals skin squirrels and pick on banjos. But Li’l Abner has long since flown the coop in this mangy and decayed Dogpatch. Both the men and women folk have turned from raising chickens to cooking up “crank,” including Ree’s father.

At every turn in Ree’s twisted journey, she runs into dead ends, cold stares and flat-out hostility. Repeatedly turned back in her quest, she returns home, where she teaches her two younger siblings the fine art of gutting a squirrel. Proud and feisty, she refuses to take no for an answer, even if it means putting her life at risk. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” is her drawling motto. Now the woman of the house, Ree is forced to take care of her withdrawn, emotionally disturbed mother.

But Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini work backwards, building the film from the outside in and overlooking the dramatic forest for all those Missouri pine trees. They don’t piece together Ree’s meandering journey into a narrative whole, and nor are their supporting characters much more than a motley collection of grizzled backwoods types who look the part, but don’t do a lot else. As much as Granik would like to turn Ree into a kind of mystery-solving Ozark Oedipus (or Electra), she never blossoms as a full-bodied, flesh-and-blood heroine, no matter how gutsy she acts.

While it may have worked on the page, Granik’s grotesque, cold-blooded climax—accessorized with chain saw—is, hands down, the unkindest cut of all on the film’s credibility as drama.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 7/3/10

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