Friday, 29 October 2010

Winter's Bone

Casting a non-patronising eye over people on the fringes of society requires a nuanced hand but director Debra Granik is up to the task in Winter's Bone. Her third effort as helmer, Bone is earmarked by a down home earthiness that captures the palpable chill in the mountain air of the Ozarks in which it's set. Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, it's a great many genres rolled into one, but the rich mixture of social observation and American Gothic is what really stands out.

Another standout is star Jennifer Lawrence, bringing unerring poise and dignity to a role that invites caricature. She stars as 17 year old Ree Dolly, a girl single-handedly raising her younger brother and sister due to the fact that her mother sits in a practically catatonic state. But then the local Sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) visits and informs Ree that her absentee, drug dealing father has put their house up as collateral for his bail. Should he not turn up for his trial in a week's time, Ree loses it all and her family will be left homeless and destitute.

A classic fable then unfolds, with the young girl venturing out into the threatening mountain community to track her father down. Everywhere she goes, she is met with a code of silence, the citizens (most of them familial relations or acquaintances), inviting inevitable comparisons to Deliverance. But that's where the comparison ends; for one, Deliverance was set in a different state (Georgia as opposed to Missouri) and also Winter's Bone isn't willing to exploit backwoods America for exploitative or grotesque purposes. Granik, Lawrence and scripter Anne Rosellini instead have their feet planted on the frosty ground, painting an unflattering but arguably far more truthful landscape. It's a fascinating depiction of a particular strand of American culture.

But truthfully, Granik is less interested in narrative than in the careful application of mood and tension, taking great pains to portray human decency in the face of eroded lives and landscapes. It's a picture where sadness and cold hostility is etched into every skeletal tree branch; burned out cars littering the community like the washed-up, broken dreams of its inhabitants. As Ree's enquiries lead her further into danger, the performances take on even greater vitality, especially John Hawkes as her volatile uncle Teardrop; a subversive spin on the Big Bad Wolf character who may in fact turn out to be her saviour. Likewise, Dillahunt (assaying the latest in a long line of rural American characters) may be a less heroic Sheriff than it first appears.

And while there are enough suspenseful plot developments to keep the motor running, they seem serviceable in comparison to Granik's sense of compassion and texture, her film living among the characters rather than above them. Lawrence meanwhile is a terrific focal point and gives one of the most beautifully understated performances of the year, never inviting scorn as she teaches her siblings how to shoot and cook squirrel, but always adding layer upon layer of human interest in a moody, disturbing study of the American character, one that would surely prove clinical without her involvement.

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