I watched a remarkable film last night, Winter's Bone. It stayed with me. I kept thinking about it, or to be more specific, about certain scenes, well after it was over.
The movie is about a young girl searching for her father, who may or may not be dead, for a variety of reasons to help save the family house. The father is tied up in the meth business (a big problem in southern Missouri, although I didn't know that before) and has been bailed from jail and has vanished. The storyline is simply that.
But it wasn't the story or the plot that kept me riveted. It was the ambience. It is beautifully shot. Or more to the point, it's accurately shot. I knew all of those people. A good friend watched it last night with Angie and I and said afterwards that although he admired the film he didn't find himself emotionally invested in it. I agree with that, to a point. Neither was I, really. But I also have never been emotionally invested in, say, Raging Bull or Apocalypse Now or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Star Wars. Nonetheless, I count all of those movies in my top twenty favorites of all time. So, for me anyway, that's not a criteria for great film viewing. In fact, just the opposite. Scorcese, for example, steers clear of reaction shots for the most part. Look at King of Comedy. One of the reasons that film is so uncomfortable is because Scorcese doesn't let us blow off emotional steam by giving us reaction shots. We're left to feel uncomfortable with the subject matter rather than poke fun at it because he doesn't let us laugh with it. It's a joke without a punchline. In fact, a full two hours of jokes without punchlines. The same can be said of Winter's Bone.
Reaction shots are the bread and butter for films. They are the proverbial 'money shots.' Without them we are left to our own devices to interpret a scene or, even more specifically, a dramatic or comedic moment. That's one reason we don't see very many Shakespearean-type soliloquys in film. They give too much of the decision making process to the audience. It takes a very confident director indeed to make a movie without reaction shots. For instance, one of my favorite movies, Cinema Paradiso...try to imagine that incredibly powerful scene in the end without the reaction shot from the actor playing the estranged director in the small movie theatre watching the old movie clips. It is his reaction to the clips that is so powerful, not the clips themselves. TV learned this lesson early, thus the annoying and intrusive 'laugh track' on so many sitcoms.
Another problem my friend had with the movie is his inability to understand a lot of the regional dialect. It is dead on. I didn't have so much trouble with it because I grew up in that area. Angie, too, understood it, even more than I did. He kept asking Angie what was being said and she would clarify for him. I had the same problem with 'Sid and Nancy' when it came out. It was like watching a foreign film without subtitles for me.
But none of that is why I liked the movie so much. I liked the movie because it spoke to me personally on a geographic level. I knew that place, I knew those people, and I understood that feeling of being trapped in that landscape. Speaking of Scorsese, the same can be said of his 'Taxi Driver.' That is to say, a vision of New York City as a kind of Hell. Winter's Bone does the same thing for Missouri. It is a glimpse into that lifestyle and ambience as a picture of desolation itself.
Odd to say this, but I didn't really care about the plot or the plight of our protagonist in the film. I agreed with my friend on that point. And yet I was still riveted. The film is peopled with scary, uneducated, ignorant, violent characters. In other words, most of the people with whom I grew up. I knew these people and I lived with these people. Terrible people who's 'fight or flight' instinct easily wins out over reason and compassion. Desperate people who's hardscrabble life is relieved only by a daily intake of alcohol or, in the case of the movie, crystal meth. It was a frightening trip back to a place in my memory that is nothing short of a nightmare.
We rented the film not only because it has recieved a whole gaggle of critical commentary as of late but also because one of Angie's dearest friends, Beth Domann, has a small part in the movie. She's very good in it, as is every actor, really, the most memorable for me being John Hawkes in the role of 'Tear Drop,' the sociopathic brother of the deceased father. Mesmerizing work from Mr. Hawks. A part like that on film doesn't come along very often for actors and he attacks it with ferocity and intelligence. There is a scene, in fact, in the film in which that character scares the bejesus out of the local sheriff on a lonely, dark, country road. It is as tense and rewarding a scene as I have seen in a very long time on film.
The strung together pictures of that life in rural Missouri is soul-shaking. Inescapable, trapped, bleak pictures that stayed with me long after the movie rolled its credits. The director, Debra Granik, someone I've never heard of, is to be congratulated. Clearly, the budget of the film is minimal. Cleary, she's working with local actors in the Ozarks of Missouri. And clearly, she's created a world tantamount to Hades itself.
This is the best thing I've seen in 2010. If you haven't taken it in yet, I implore you to do so. But be prepared for an unrelenting starkness. This is not your father's Oldsmobile.
I can say from personal experience, there's nothing quite so depressing and hopeless as a winter evening in rural, southern Missouri. It can suck the life out of the most stalwart of spirits. And Ms. Granik has captured it perfectly. She has made a pearl from a sow's ear. Even the final moment of the piece, ostensibly there to convey at least a little hope for our protagonist, is strangely joyless and bitter.
This is a great piece of film making. It put me right there, right then, right in that moment. And I lay awake for a long time last night thinking about it. I can offer no higher praise.
See you tomorrow.