Tuesday, 21 September 2010
Sometimes a film come along, like Winter’s Bone, that just reminds you how important cinema is. Unlike any other medium, the cinematic experience gives the viewer the psychic space to imaginatively explore the lives of those that they would never encounter in normal circumstances. But, this is more than an education in neo-realism. There is a certain moral position informing such film making that aims to exercise those faculties of empathy within us. Watching films that are more than entertaining distractions but have a serious intent enables us to imagine in a vivid way something of the invisible darkness in others.
Set in the Ozark mountains of rural Missouri, Winter's Bone follows 17 year old Ree as she searches for her father who has disappeared on bail after having put up their family home as a bond. If she does not find him within the space of a week, she, her catatonic mother and her two younger siblings will be evicted. The film is a chase, race-against-the-clock movie but elevated to something more profound by the rawness of impoverished lives drawn with a visual acuity and poignancy.
These American backwaters are not unfamiliar to film goers. John Boorman's 1972 film, Deliverance, starring Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds, presented the inhabitants of these peripheral sub-cultures as backward hillbillies, emotionally ruined by lines of familial consanguinity and intent on making city-dwellers squeal like a pig. The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men suggested that the contemporary cowboy landscape had lost its John Wayne values and become an amoral wilderness. Again, Ang Lee mapped this territory in Brokeback Mountain but, in that film, the landscape became a metaphysical backdrop to suppressed passion and eventual violence. In Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik avoids any consoling lyricism or horror film clichés in order to consider the grinding effects of poverty on a community. These are people who have aged before their time, the lines in their faces etched by the toil of eking a living from a barren land or surviving their loneliness by snorting lines or firing rounds into each other.
Winter's Bone possesses all the menace of any good thriller but the film’s real achievement is to place these thriller motifs within a domestic context. In between playing Nancy Drew, we witness Ree's effort to look after her family. Where ends cannot meet, she survives on the food handouts from neighbours or the hunting of squirrels for a stew. Played by Jennifer Lawrence with impressive emotional commitment, Ree combines gritty resilience with the awkward vulnerability of any teenager. Her world is one of trailers, cabins and anorexic dogs tethered to long chains. Yet, she accepts this stark, unforgiving existence for the sake of keeping her family together. When her brother and sister ask her if she is going to abandon them, Ree replies “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.”
Yet for all the emotional and visual austerity, this film does not succumb to fashionable nihilism. Winter’s Bone is a more nuanced project and seeks a kind of ambiguous redemption. Even in an hermetically sealed environment where the laws of barbarism and vengeance shape social attitudes, the possibility that individuals will choose generosity and goodness breathes hope across this tortured landscape. This hope may look grimy and weather beaten but it is still something recognisable as worth living for.