Winter's Bone (USA, 2010, Debra Granik)
Not that I keep up with what's current, still, Winter's Bone is the best recent release I have seen since The Messenger. If for nothing else, the film should be seen for the scene where she wants to join the army. The conversation she has with the recruitment officer is a double-barreled blast of realism. As feminist as it is class conscious - indeed, as is the entire film - what really pushes this scene into the A+ zone is that the man from the military sincerely respects her and provides her with advice he believes is in her best interest. It's the single moment in the film when the protagonist falters from her otherwise amazingly precocious intelligence. He has to explain to her that even if she was a legal adult who could register without her parents' permission, she would not be allowed to bring her siblings along to boot camp, never mind care for them when she was over in Iraq in a tank. Unlike most men throughout history, her domestic duty makes it impossible for her to do a tour of duty, even as it is the poverty of the family that drives her to believe that she must sign up for active service.
This is going deep into the guts of the matter for a poor working-class woman with a couple of kids to raise - and the pain at the very pit of the stomach is that this "woman" is just a girl herself. Clearly, the heavy lifting of the drama is done by the fact that she is seventeen going on forty. To say that she is wise beyond her years is a pitiful understatement. But even more mature than her knowledge of the world is her will power. The resolve of the character is simply staggering to behold. It's not just that she faces the facts, it's that she acts. For some time now I have been promoting the notion the seven-months pregnant police chief in Fargo is the most outstanding feminist character in contemporary cinema, but Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone is at least as credible and impressive. And just as Francis McDormand totally nailed that part, Jennifer Lawrence completely inhabits the Ozark mountain, white-trash circumstance and the singular nobility of her character.
The whole film is admirable for it's stark lack of sentiment, narrative economy, absolute abstinence from anything sensationalistic and complex characterizations. Ree's uncle, Teardrop, is an even more deeply layered character than she is, with serious internal contradictions, and the actor, John Hawkes, delivers an outstanding performance. But everyone turns in good work, from the two youngsters who never give in to ham for a second, to the bad ass hillbilly bitch who beats our girl to a pulp only to turn around later to lend her a hand (two actually... and how nasty is that part of the plot? - very!)
Not having read the novel on which the film is based, I do not know to what extent the rigorous realism of Winter's Bone is due to the original source material and how much to the celluloid adaptation. Either way, the story-boarding is exceptionally good and the dialogue is a stand-out feature. The latter might seem otherwise given how taciturn the rural and largely uneducated characters are. But every word counts. What little is said not only reveals the inner workings of the main characters, it also moves the story forward with a degree of subtlety that is truly uncommon. For all the significant social drama of Winter's Bone, it is in the first place a very suspenseful tale and it is told without the sort of heavy-handed verbal signaling that so often makes dark detective stories on the screen irritatingly obvious and improbable.
And Winter's Bone is definitely a detective story. The big city and not the small town is usually the locale for this genre, but the hick setting has the advantage of all the incestuous meddling and gossip being that much more believable. A few rural steps further into the back woods and that incestuous factor becomes literal, the meddling and gossip that much more inter-bred and menacing. Peyton Place meets Deliverance in a meth lab. Everybody is badly up in everybody's bad business and it is breaking very, very bad. For me, this is the main achievement of Winter's Bone. Mystery and tension are generated in a community context where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The film accomplishes this on the sheer strength of the dynamics between the characters, all their past transgressions and rekindled bonds coming to the surface of the situation.
And hey, there's a couple of cool cinematographic effects as well. So all in all, Debra Granik is a director whose name I intend to remember, (although it remains to be seen if she can make a movie without the word "bone" in the title.)
Take a gander at the trailer: