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Winterís Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

 

   With Winterís Bone, her second feature, Debra Granik sketches a low-key noir plot against an unusual Ozark backdrop, to questionable results. Set in rural Missouri, the film follows seventeen-year-old Ree (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as she hunts down her father, who has skipped bail and put her familyís farmhouse up as collateral. Over the course of the movie, Bree must both hold her immediate family together and bargain with her treacherous extended family for information that might help her find her father.

 

     Bree is an anomaly in this environment. She is graced with beauty, self-sufficiency and unwavering integrity. The question of how she emerged as fully formed as she did given her circumstances is left unanswered, and Lawrence makes little attempt to flesh the character out. As a result, Bree comes across as a script contrivance, both functioning as an audience surrogate amidst the backwoods intrigue and an unquestionable moral compass, lessening the impact of the plotís insistence that its main players are all interrelated. Last-year, Precious came under no small amount of fire for its depictions of urban poverty, but that film had the nerve to make its audiences confront a protagonist who confounds traditional ideals of screen beauty and morality. While Winterís Bone hardly exploits the poor in its depiction of them, its decision to focus on Bree while showing audiences their world seems like an artistic compromise.

 

     Winterís Bone features a narrative that is clumsily delivered, with large chunks of expository dialogue diffusing what should be a compelling mystery. Many of the biggest plot twists are delivered via a speech, rather than played out. As a result, Granik must place even greater emphasis on the milieu than most noir works. The problem is that she has delivered a work that is less visually accomplished than her first feature, Down to the Bone. In that movie, the bleakness of the environment was palpable, and the everyday was transformed as we saw it through an addictís eyes. What atmosphere there is in Winterís Bone comes across through the faces of the actors, rather than via the desolate landscapes. For better or worse, a large chunk of the United States is dotted with the burned out meth labs and squirrel hunts that we see here. The local color on display in Winterís Bone lacks much of the specificity that would help to make it more convincing. The film is poorer for it.

 

    The acting, which is less spectacular than acceptably unshowy, goes a long way toward helping Winterís Bone overcome its most considerable deficits. Because the supporting cast looks so unlike the people we typically see in films, they provide a menacing and interesting string of personalities for Bree to encounter, which is one of the key functions of any noir. Of course having such a motley crew floating about undercuts any sense of realism, but by its climax, set amid a Gothic river, Winterís Bone has fully revealed itself as a genre film. The best noir, though, uses its genre to paint a jaundiced picture of the society in which it takes place. Competent and well-mounted, but rather unexciting by the standards of the noir genre, Winterís Bone might stumble most in failing to tack any significant social subtext onto its story. Beyond a trite message that family can be a burden and some clunky metaphors in its final moments that suggest redemption, there is not much going on here.

 

49

Jeremy Heilman 

06.19.10