Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The First Cut is the Deepest: WINTER'S BONE

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is a thriller that chills in ways that set it apart from most other thrillers. There’s a chilliness that sets in during the opening scenes, and before I knew it the chill was bone deep. It’s a chill that goes further than the film’s pale blue coloring and the wintry setting, with pale faces, crunchy steps and icy puffs of breath. It’s a chill that comes from cold actions and intentions, from cold hearts and harsh realities of the character’s lives.

The film is anchored by a powerful performance from 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence who stars as a small-town Missouri teenager left by her deadbeat, drug-dealer dad to take care of her younger brother and sister and their invalid mother. The plot is set in motion when the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up to say that her missing father has a looming court date and has put up the property as his bail. If he doesn’t show, they’ll lose their house.

The teen sets out to find her father. At every turn the suspicious townsfolk who usually run in the same circles as the man claim they haven’t seen him in a while. But their eyes and demeanors hint at darker truths. This small-town society is closing in our lead. Even her uncle (John Hawkes) would rather forget about his missing brother than plunge into the question of the man’s whereabouts. There’s a conspiratorial nature that’s striving to keep secrets hidden, all the more dangerous for being a collection of people who all know each other, who have deep, tangled roots.

There are those who would keep the truth of her father’s location hidden. If she doesn’t find out the truth soon, her family will be homeless. They barely have the resources to survive as it is. They get by on luck, thriftiness, and the kindness of their neighbors. The menacing figures lurking around the plot are no more menacing than the threat of being pushed even further down the economic ladder.

There’s a realism on display here, building a picture of a community wherein crushing poverty is nearly as dangerous as the film’s central mystery. The specifics of the setting and character ground the frightening, chilling moments to come. It’s a subdued ache of a film that borders on becoming a slice of ice-cold southern gothic.

The restraint on display only heightens the anguish. It’s upsetting to see the girl beaten and intimidated, but it’s nearly as upsetting to watch the parallel story of their financial situation. They, and the people in their community, are endlessly trying to scrape up enough to keep living. This is not a film that looks down its nose in pity on the less fortunate. This is a film that locates their basic humanness and surrounds them with production design that feels just right. Too often though, Granik lets the local color overpower plot and character. Luckily such lapses don’t overpower the film as a whole.

The film builds to very disturbing scene, despite having the grisliest moments kept out of frame (small spoiler: it involves a rowboat and a chainsaw). But the scene that hit me the hardest is one of the smallest. After hunting squirrels, the lead’s 12-year-old brother scoops out a slimy handful of squirrel guts and asks his big sister “Do we eat these parts?” Her reply: “Not yet.”

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