Wednesday, March 9, 2011

WINTER'S BONE (2010)

Maybe I wouldn't have noticed the resemblance if I'd bothered to see Debra Granik's Oscar-nominated movie when it played local theaters last summer, but now that I've watched the DVD I can't help being reminded of True Grit. It strikes me that Granik's adaptation of a Daniel Woodrell novel is more the modern version of Charles Portis's story, in either sense of the word, than the Coen Bros. remake of the Henry Hathway movie. It's definitely the darker telling.

Both stories deal with a girl on a dangerous mission. In Winter's Bone, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a week to find her missing father so he can make a court date, or else her family will lose the home he's put up as bond. At first it looks as if Dad might simply have absconded, being the best meth cook in Missouri and all, but the story gradually takes on a stronger resemblance to the basic True Grit situation. Even so, Ree's got to have proof in order to ward off the bondsmen, even if her own acceptance of the country omerta means giving up hope of justice or even revenge. Like the heroine of True Grit, Ree is a premature matriarch due to the absent dad and an incompetent mother. It's up to her to raise a younger brother and a six year old sister, both of whom she has to teach how to use a squirrel gun for survival's sake. Ree isn't perky or quirky like your choice of True Grit actress; the Oscar-nominated Lawrence seems closer to what the Portis-Hathaway-Coen heroine should or probably would have been like. She is hard, grim and bitter, without ideals and only better than her relatives and neighbors because of her sense of responsibility and the fact that she isn't on the meth yet.

A Rooster Cogburn counterpart even emerges in the form of Ree's Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), a hardcase addict feared by the local law and lawbreakers alike who tries early to warn Ree off of asking too many people where her Dad might be. He finally stands up for Ree when her stubborn nosiness puts her in danger of death at the hands of the local meth patriarch and his clan. By doing so, he puts himself in permanent peril, taking responsibility should Ree ever squeal or otherwise betray the community's secrets, including the fate of Teardrop's brother. He warns her never to tell him if she does find out who might have killed her father, but it's unclear whether he refuses the knowledge because it'd make his own life forfeit or because he'd be compelled to make a suicide-run for revenge. It's probably both, and it makes his departure at the end, after he tells a still-ignorant Ree that he's found out himself, a grimly sad moment of abortive redemption.

Forty years or so ago, this wouldn't be so unusual a film, but it would've been quite different. Hillbilly or country crime movies were a popular subgenre in the Seventies, but they were mostly exploitation films. In those days a slightly older Ree might have been Claudia Jennings in cutoffs and there'd be no question about her taking revenge, however unlikely, on all comers. There would have been car chases and explosions and skinny dipping -- the title might've been Summer's Bone to facilitate the nudity. I would've been reminded less of True Grit in that case, but I don't think it was Granik's plan to plant that thought in my head anyway. She's made a hard film about modern American poverty, an unpopular subject in Hollywood these days.

The poverty was taken for granted in those Seventies films, but it only formed a backdrop for fantasies of rural degeneracy -- fun as they sometimes are -- that dated back to Tobacco Road or God's Little Acre. The world of Winter's Bone is still pretty degenerate, but Granik doesn't make a spectacle of it. Hers is a deliberately ugly film portraying an ugly, littered landscape. There are few signs of stylization. Granik's stark approach and Lawrence and Hawkes's terse, convincing performances tellingly portray potential crushed or in the process of being crushed in a ruined socioeconomic landscape. The stuff of Seventies exploitation is now the stuff of 21st century independent cinema. What that tells us about the movie business and the American audience is hard to say.

3 comments:

The Movie Snob said...

Never noticed the resemblance between the two, but now that you point it out I can definitely see the similarities between this and True Grit.

Excellent write up!

Sam Juliano said...

"The world of Winter's Bone is still pretty degenerate, but Granik doesn't make a spectacle of it. Hers is a deliberately ugly film portraying an ugly, littered landscape. There are few signs of stylization. Granik's stark approach and Lawrence and Hawkes's terse, convincing performances tellingly portray potential crushed or in the process of being crushed in a ruined socioeconomic landscape."

Superb and persuasive framing here, but of course the aspect of this excellent essay is the comparison with TRUE GRIT. To be honest Samuel, I have NOT come across such a proposition anywhere, yet after the various similarities you note here, it's amazing it hasn't been suggested. Lawrence of Steinfeld are equally tenacious, and there is definitely a connection between Hawkes and the Rooster Cogburn character, but as you also note WINTER'S BONE is far darker. In any case the most startling point you raise is the idea that Granik's adaptation of the Woodrell novel is "more the modern version of Charles Portis' story."

Your last paragraph is superlative, though I am having a difficult time sorted out a summary judgement on your part. But all things considered that matters little, compared to what light you have shed on the film's narrative concepts.

Samuel Wilson said...

Unfortunately for me, a Google search reveals that the comparison occured to some astute viewers back when the Coens' True Grit came out in December. I didn't see such a comparison myself until after I wrote my review, and given the obvious similarities, that surprises me a little.

Sam J, if you're asking if I liked the film, the answer is an enthusiastic yes. For me it was a better film than True Grit, though both would make my top ten for 2010.