the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010)

Squeal Like a Piglet

The rape in Deliverance forever scarred 1970s American moviegoers. A Faulkner-like depravity laid threadbare in Technicolor. Inner city poverty might be an illness; the rural, specifically Southern, underclass is the embodiment of the American nightmare. Unbridled self-made individualism mixes with the God from the book of Job. It’s life, liberty without the pursuit of happiness. Not a pretty picture and complaints will be punishable by death… capital punishment also extends to speaking to outsiders. Yankees might be clever but we’re tougher… even though we lost the war… and we remember that at sunrise cause everyone needs a good hate to get through the day.

The last shot in Deliverance is the gothic-horror “hand” unexpectedly rising from the water. Now Winter’s Bone shows us what it was trying to grasp. The landscape of the rural South, always very distance from any economic booms, has been hit with the plague of meth and crank since Burt Reynold’s and his buddies decided to go canoeing. There is an unrelenting grimness that seems to extend beyond the decrepit houses and broken people. There is a scene in which some squirrels are “dressed” for a stew. Lucky squirrels.

I’ve always wondered about the cradle of Southern monsters. Charles Manson learned the good book in West Virginia with his aunt and uncle – might have been just down the road from where our protagonist’s house is being foreclosed due to her father’s failure to meet a bail-bond obligation. We’ve seen the male demons starting with Huck Finn’s father – but what about the hand the rocks the cradle? Winter’s Bone illustrates the other side of Scarlet O’Hara. Put away you’re Antebellum gowns and pick up your 12 gauge. The only Southern Comfort you’re getting from these ladies is in a bottle; which might end up being smashed against the side of your head.

Winter’s Bone has an odd way of reinforcing and tearing-down myths. The first seems to support the adage that backwoods family trees are similar straight edge rulers. Everyone we see in this film is related. Men are also kings of their castles with women as honorary serfs. There is a line where a particularly brutal good-ole-boy admonishes his wife: I told you once with words. No doubt fists are the secondary mode of communication. Yet despite these truisms there is a surprising amount of female empowerment. Under the surface of male domination there is a sense that women run the show. Everyone in these towns has a fear of grandpa; but grandma seems to be the enforcer/policy-maker. In fact the only beating we witness is when the women decide to deliver justice (against another woman). The men are frozen in reputation and rumor, as exhibited by the cowardly sheriff; it is the women who are the movers and shakers; literally.

The mechanics of Winter’s Bone are solid. The writing is strong; although the spare script might have benefited from even less dialogue. (e.g. was it really necessary to have the protagonist verbalize her wish that her mother would give her advice – it was already clear in the moment without the words). There were other literary devices that might have been excised, as they appear overbearing on the big screen. (i.e. the uncles giving the young chicks to his young niece and nephew signaling a rejuvenation of their relationship; ditto for the passing of the banjo). The pacing slowed in a couple of segments but all these are minor notes in otherwise strong film. The director, editor and cinematographer delivered the goods by painting all the rusted dirt-brown dishevelment with care. It is one of the ironies of filmmaking that the accurate portrayal of random chaos relies on methodic craftsmanship and painstaking attention to detail. This brings us to the actors themselves.

There is a level of genuineness in these performances that is a rare in American films. This is an ensemble piece with no “stars”. This is a rendering of a place and its people; not simply a vehicle for one actor to demonstrate their virtuosity. The result is a feeling as if you’ve turned down and unmarked dirt road and were lost amongst the locals. It is a relief to see real people rendered with dignity. This work rescues the underclass from daytime TV clich├ęs and brings a Shakespearean drama to these heretofore-unmarked lives. Make no mistake, the heroines save everyone from the heroin… and crack, crank, meth, murder, mayhem….

Winter’s Bone is a tale of redemption. The gothic-horror hand that ends Deliverance becomes a saving totem; a magic ring which delivers the innocents… It is the choice of focusing on the women that gives new life to the old South. It’s not all unspeakable violence and ignorance. There is tough love delivered by tough women who understand that perseverance is the antidote to self-loathing and self-pity. Frankly my dear, she does give a damn. And so should you.

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