As someone that is admittedly critical of the American film scene it is very difficult to give an American made film huge plaudits and credit. However three films in the last month have really changed my outlook on the current forecast of American made films.
First was The Town, an intense character study about slums that are mainly populated by white Americans, a setting that is rarely seen. I was very impressed by Affleck’s film and the honesty its story was told with. It pulled a punch at the end but was still impressive.
Then there was David Fincher’s Facebook drama The Social Network. This was an exploration of the upper class in America and how social voyeurism has become quite an intrinsic part of all our lives. Fincher continues to prove he is one of the most interesting directors working today.
However the film that stands out as being truly and uniquely an American film is Winter’s Bone. This is an independent film directed by Debra Granik and made on a paltry budget of 2 million dollars. However the story it tells is haunting and stays with you for many weeks after seeing the film.
Winter’s Bone tells the story of an impoverished 17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawerence) who is responsible for taking care or her younger brother and sister as well as her catatonic mother in their small Missouri home. Her father is a Meth-Cooker who put their house up as bail when he gets arrested then promptly disappears. Ree is forced to venture into the underground networks of her Ozark community to find her father if her family is going to have any chance of surviving.
The film breathes realism in every aspect. This is by no means a glamorous look at life in the substance abuse riddled boonies of Missouri. However like The Town this explores a Caucasian slum in a way that is not often seen in film. Ree is forced to go out searching for her father amongst a community that is all interrelated, whether by blood or by past experiences. It is obvious that Ree is not welcome and that she should just accept that her father is gone. However Ree is a fighter and wants to be able to provide for her family without losing her dignity. There is a poignant scene where Ree’s neighbors are skinning a deer. Ree’s brother implores her to ask for some of it, as they have no food. Ree scolds him, “never ask for something that ought to be offered”.
Lawrence depicts Ree with a steely set of nerves yet is not without ambitions outside her family. She wishes to go to school like every other kid her age, and also dreams of someday joining the Army. However she understands her responsibility and takes the burden of her family on her fearless shoulders. Lawrence gives a strong performance, she plays Ree as such an empowered female lead throughout the film, which shows the backwardness of the Ozark community where the males make the life-altering decisions, and the females are forced to deal with the consequences.
The scene-stealer and overall best performance of this film however is John Hawkes as Ree’s coke-addicted uncle Teardrop. If Hawkes were not nominated for Best Supporting Actor it would truly be a crime because he delivers a performance so powerful that the film feels almost anchored by his scenes. He also delivers the scene of the film in the form of a showdown with Garrett Dillahunt’s Sheriff. Hawkes has been trapped in thankless comedy roles for a long time but finally breaks out here and shows a brooding intensity. Teardrop is a conflicted character that the audience never fully understands, however he is a symbol of the good and evil that we as humans are capable of. He is not a fully sympathetic character yet he is not completely bad, and Hawkes portrays him beautifully.
Another thing that I specifically thought about this film was how much of an answer it was to The Coen Brothers No Country For Old Men. Where No Country was an exploration of the transition from old moral views to a new generation of moral views Winter’s Bone is an example of the new generation run amuck. In fact there seems to be a sense of continuity with Garrett Dillahunt’s character. In No Country he was a young and naïve deputy to Tommy Lee Jones Sherriff. In Winter’s Bone he is a Sheriff who has been jaded by the community he is serving and no longer sees a meaning to his job. What are the effects of trying to serve justice on a community that has no respect for it? How can you do your job when no one wants the job done? These are all questions Winter’s Bone raises.
Director Debra Granik does a thoughtful and meditative job with this film. She understands the direction that American filmmaking has been going and actively fights against that paradigm with this film. She says, “The traditional storyline in an American film is usually in the form of a V shape. I am oversimplifying, but we see someone tumbling down, they hit bottom, and then they rise up again and find redemption…You get knocked down and ask all the ethical questions like how many chances do you give a person? When is the last chance? How many chances do they get? Can you imagine how difficult it is to fit that in a feature-length film? But those are the questions that are worth asking… The reason why boils down to the word “dark”. It is the scariest four-letter word in American storytelling and in this culture.” This is a true statement but hopefully more directors will join Granik in their subtle understanding that humans are not always predictable and total redemption is not always found in a 2-hour time frame. Also making a film does not mean that it needs to have a conclusive ending. Trusting your audience enough to allow them to make decisions about what happens to the characters after the film is a huge compliment a film can pay its audience. Granik achieves this and then some with a beautiful final scene that is half melancholic and half hopeful.