Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Review by Ryan Wilson
This weekend the 4th Annual Riverside Saginaw Film Festival occupies the Temple Theatre in Downtown Saginaw. Each year the festival brings to the big screen a number of the year’s most notable films, largely unavailable at your local Cineplex. The festival is especially good at combining international feature films with some of the winners from America’s premiere film festivals.
My pick from this year’s American crop is Winter’s Bone, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Most striking is the film’s social correspondences regarding the film’s sense of place and its people. The story is set in Ozark hill country, where none of your assumptions about the rough underbelly of rural America will be challenged. Instead the filmmakers choose to look unflinchingly at what we, as viewers, all assume to be true about the rural poor.
It’s always a risk to profile a specific subculture in such a way. Critics of such a cognitive approach can accuse the filmmakers of exploiting stereotypes. For example, down in these hollows the teenagers are pregnant, the men are menacing and abusive, and everyone is cooking methamphetamine, if not to sell then to help cope with their hell of an existence. From a screenwriting standpoint, it all comes too readily.
But we forget this from frame one due to director Debra Granik’s schematic visuals. To begin, we see two children playing quietly outside of a mountain cabin. Granik knows that we bring to these images a set of interpretations regarding childhood and poverty, but rather than surprise us, Granik commits to our assumptions, giving her subjects an authenticity that she can build on.
It’s the same sort of effect that photographer Walker Evans attained in his portraits of sharecroppers for the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Like Evans, Granik affords the people and the landscape a rugged integrity inside the camera’s frame. The result is nothing short of hypnotic.
But Winter’s Bone isn't just a study in perception. At its core is a highly engaging story of survival. The plot concerns 17-year-old Ree Dolly, who must hold her backwoods family together after her mother is incapacitated and her meth-making fugitive father goes missing. While tending to her younger siblings, she must find her father before she loses her house because her dad has offered up the property as his bail bond.
Her quest could be called a pastoral noir, taking her down a dirt road no 17-year-old girl should ever have to travel. The warped irony is that the scariest people she must encounter are her relatives. Hillbillies haven't been this frightening since Ned Beatty took a canoe ride in Deliverance.
But beyond the fear, the film is excellent at conveying the code of conduct that the local folks live by. Everyone knows how to keep secrets too well. The biggest sin, we learn, is to expose oneself to the community and to the law, which is exactly what Ree must do to find her father and save her family.
Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree with jaw-dropping fearlessness. At seventeen she's already a weathered-soul, best shown in her desire to join the Army, not to escape her family or for any fleeting patriotic cause, but for the paycheck that will return home to her siblings.
Along with Lawrence, the film belongs to extraordinary character actor John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle, esoterically named Teardrop. He's the type of man who makes you uncomfortable just by his walking into the room. Like Ree, he’s fearless, but his fearlessness is restless and reckless. More than anything, he gives us a peek at the patriarchal order of the culture. He’s loved yet feared, angry yet caring in his way. A pencil thin character, Teardrop is afraid of nothing, and like most men in this place, he’s selfish and unpredictable.
Both Ree and Teardrop transform description. I can describe these characters, but what makes Winter’s Bone so extraordinary is that we experience their lives. Anyone who’s ever spent time in rural America, be it in Arkansas, West Virginia, or yes, Michigan, will immediately identify the world they inhabit. For everyone else, this film will shine a light.
Winter’s Bone is available on DVD, but to fully experience what I’m saying see it on the big screen this Sunday at 7:30 at the Temple Theatre. For information on all show times and venues during the festival, go to riversidesaginawfilmfestival.org.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1,
airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced
by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.
© Ryan Wilson, 2010