There’s an argument out there somewhere stating that in the last ten years, film noir has enjoyed something of a revival with the release of films like Memento, Oldboy, and most notably Brick, and maybe there’s some validity to that claim. But film noir as a genre never died out; it just lost a lot of the vitality and prominence it enjoyed in the 40’s and 50’s. (And depending on who you talk to, the 60’s and 70’s.) Maybe the neo-noirs of our current cinematic atmosphere aren’t quite so numerous as those of yesteryear, but that’s not to say they don’t exist, and yes, it certainly does feel like they’re coming back, so to speak. And since many of the filmmakers responsible for contemporary film noirs each handle the tropes of the genre in their own ways, that can only be a good thing.
With the release of 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (on the fast track toward becoming known as “that director who only makes movies with the word ‘bone’ in the title”) can be counted among the number of talented modern filmmakers creating fresh and exciting new entries in the noir tradition. Based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name, Winter’s Bone— aptly labeled “country noir”– moves out of the narrow and shadowed alleyways and streets of the city, into the Ozarks, and among the scattered and divided members of the Dolly clan. Specifically, the film focuses on 17 year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in what’s sure to be a signature performance for the young actress), who plays caregiver to her two young siblings and ailing mother while also striving to locate Jessup, her MIA meth-cooking father. We learn early on that dear old dad has gone missing and that if he doesn’t make his upcoming court date, Ree, the kids, and mom will end up homeless since Jessup put their house and land up for bonds.
Winter’s Bone impresses on a number of levels. Taken at face value this is an unsettling look at the kind of lifestyle fostered by the absolutely crippling poverty that defines the region these characters live in– for most of us the idea of having to hunt squirrels for sustenance is appalling on its own, never mind that Ree has to skin and gut the hapless critters herself. (It sounds gruesome and it is, but it’s not half as bad as you’re imagining.) These are people living precisely on the edge in a world where each household of several children, innumerable animals, and no money; if the idea of such an existence isn’t difficult enough to process, then consider how that kind of life changes a human being. Most of us might deride a character like Thump Milton or Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, if we saw them in a town center or city, but the film places us in their territory, and that changes our perception.
All of this makes it really, really easy to feel concern and outright fear for Ree, who very quickly finds herself wading knee-deep in an unforgiving and unrelentingly rough culture comprised of people who don’t care about her plight or well-being. Ree, the kind of tough and maternal “Mama Bear” figure Sarah Palin would probably champion if not for her unwilling connections to criminal culture, at least is resilient enough and resourceful enough and flat-out strong enough to shoulder the burdens of her quest and of her general life, but she’s still a child herself and we’re reminded frequently of her inherent vulnerability.
Ree’s the story’s central character, which makes Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of her central to the quality and success of the entire film. It’s a tall order but the young actress more than rises to the occasion, turning out the kind of character that will unquestionably earn her recognition in the present and almost without a doubt remain one of her best performances many years down the line in her career. Ree’s as complex a character as they come, boasting a number of diverse and often conflicting emotional facets which all in turn come to the forefront of her personal arc and by extension the film’s driving narrative. As the sole provider for her brother and sister, and for her near-catatonic mother, Ree demonstrates nurturing and caring; in that same role she also displays a strength that, at first, seems to be unshakable. No doubt Ree’s a tough customer but in the end, she’s still a scared kid wandering into a world that she doesn’t fully understand, in which the family ties that matter so much to Ree don’t mean the same to others and adults have no compunctions toward harming her for asking questions. Lawrence is able to make Ree outwardly hardened and inwardly fragile; she feels natural, and it’s not hard to imagine that there are countless Rees out there in the world, surviving while balancing on the edge of a knife blade. It’s a harrowing and moving performance, and easily one of the best delivered by any actor or actress in 2010.
If Lawrence brings a bit of verite to the film with Ree, then co-star John Hawkes sort of does the opposite. It’s not that Teardrop, weathered, grey, and ever ready to strike the fear of God into anybody who scorns or disrespects him, isn’t a real character; surely men like him are out there as much as there are girls like Ree. But Teardrop nonetheless feels mythical, the proverbial mountain man, if of course the mountain man snorted methamphetamine at regular intervals and could silence an entire room of criminals just by making an entrance. Hawkes is primarily known for playing affable, charming, or at least non-threatening characters, so to say that Teardrop is change of pace for him would be kind of an understatement. Put bluntly, Teardrop is outright terrifying. Even the most unsavory backwood rednecks Ree encounters in the film are afraid of him, and our introduction to the character pegs him as unstable, brutish, and casually cruel; eventually, we start to see through to his genuine intentions and the character undergoes something of a transformation while retaining his hard-as-nails demeanor and his aura of fear. It’s Hawkes’ stand-out acting, subtle and highly nuanced, that sells this shift in character and ultimately brings humanity to the role.
Their story unfolds across a muted color palette and sparse landscape that nonetheless looks quite stunning under Granik’s careful and watchful eye. The cinematography here isn’t especially flashy or showy or stylized, but it doesn’t need to be– Winter’s Bone isn’t that kind of movie, and Granik doesn’t seem to be that kind of director. Shot on location in Missouri, there’s a quiet to each frame courtesy of the natural surroundings the movie is filmed in, striking a tone that belies the gravity of the plot– peace in the face of desperation, so to speak.
Winter’s Bone is the kind of movie that many will surely (and, being fair, rightly) describe as “unflinching”, but that’s reductive, the sort of verbiage fit for the synopsis found on IMDB or perhaps a DVD case. Truthfully, the film is something of a revelation in a year largely defined by mediocrity in its willingness to portray, as truthfully as possible, its characters and setting; it’s blunt, and it’s matter-of-fact, presenting the story with no frills and no gimmicks and without ever feeling intimidated by its content. But in all of that humble simplicity lies one of the richest stories told on celluloid this year, a tale about the power of family ties and relations and what people will endure not just to protect their loved ones but also to just flat-out live.