Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Marrow Is In The Bone's Center

Well, it's that time of the year: Oscar Season. As in past years, I've not managed to see all of this year's nominees, but I've seen a majority of them. Tonight I fixed one of my prime oversights by watching Debra Granik's wonderful Winter's Bone. I've been intrigued by this film from my first glimpse of the trailers, with its promise of intrigue and looming violence.

17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in a career-making performance) lives in a very poor mountain community somewhere in the Ozarks. She lives in the family home with her mother and her younger siblings, a brother and sister ages 12 and 9, and has unwittingly become the family's primary caregiver. Her mother is suffering an unnamed psychological malady which has left her catatonic, and her father--in the story's central detail--is absent. Ree is actually a really good mom to her younger siblings, cooking and cleaning for them and making sure they do their homework, and in her down time she patiently teaches them the basic skills they'll need to survive in this hardscrabble world: hunting and cleaning game, how to cook, how to shoot, etc. Her own aspirations are put on hold by this, and we see how this hard life sucks people in and doesn't let them go. Ree may aspire to more, but we suspect this is what her life will be.

Ree's absent father, Jessup, is a notorious producer of methamphetamine. After his latest arrest, he has been freed from jail on a bond and is now missing. The County Sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) drives out to the Dolly household in search of Jessup and informs Ree that her dad has put up the property as bond and if he doesn't show for his court date in a few days the family will be out on the street. Ree, faced with the ultimate threat to the family which has become her charge, vows to find him.

But this is not as easy a task as we might have expected, and we learn pretty quickly that there's more to the story than meets the eye. (As seems often to be the case, the rot of drug culture metastasizes to everything it touches, and Jessup's world involves more than just Jessup.) What follows is a series of encounters between the old-for-her-years teenager and a host of poor mountain folks, many having some blood relation to the Dollys, none of whom are much inclined to help her. On the contrary, in a few cases they are curiously dead-set against her efforts. As she walks from place to place, she is met again and again with the warning that she stay away from this or that person who might be able to help her and she should stop sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. These are warnings she is clearly expected to take seriously; but what is she to do? If she doesn't find Jessup, she and her invalid mother and her younger siblings will be homeless.

This is another film, like Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which promised a not particularly happy or uplifting story. But there is something in the setting and the steady unfolding of the story here that is absolutely magnetic. The ramshackle mountain community is beautiful in its own way, both the setting itself and the simplicity and honesty of this subsistence life (though the poverty is at times challenging to watch). Life here, as the film's name suggests, is much closer to the bone than many of us are accustomed to. Keeping warm and fed and clothed constitutes a more-than full time job, every day without a break. Houses are ramshackle and possessions few; cars that do not run outnumber those that do (for the lucky few who have one). The film is so lacking in artifice as to feel almost like a documentary.

But what gives the film its real pull is a collection of thrillingly strong characterizations. Ree is a young woman whom circumstance has thrust into a difficult place. But she is a product of this culture and some variant on this world is all she has ever known. 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, most of whose prior work has been in television, gives a really lovely portrayal here of a young woman whose internal compass and drive are stronger than her fear, someone who rises to a challenge in a way that is deeply satisfying to watch. Likewise Jessup's brother "Teardrop," played with a lovely nuance by John Hawkes. His strong portrayal matches Lawrence's, even if his character is the antimatter to her own. Teardrop has lived a hard life of drugs and booze and trouble with the law. Now his brother has disappeared and his niece is insistently making the choices that Teardrop and his brother have seemingly spent their whole lives avoiding. When his warnings to Ree to go home and mind her own business fail to gain traction, he must decide what side of the fence he's on. He is mesmerizing on screen; I couldn't take my eyes off him. And the other roles that support these are perfectly-drawn and -cast.

I was continually struck by how foreign this culture was to me, as foreign as that of another country. Life in a community like this is prioritized very differently from my own; it's life that does not pivot around any of the things I value. These are not stupid people by any means, but they live without the veneer of city culture. I couldn't help thinking as I watched the pecking orders playing out that this community was much more instinct-driven than what we see in, say, a Woody Allen film--it's almost like watching a dog pack (I mean this in a strictly anthropological sense; I don't mean to condemn). Some folks are constantly vying for control of others, and a force-fed hierarchy emerges with the Alpha at the top of each stratum. The story seems to work on such an elemental level, and it all felt absolutely convincing to me.

Here's another worthy nominee for the year's top honor.

Grade: A

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

I absolutely wanted to see this one but didn't get the chance. I just now added it to my Netflix queue.