Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hard boiled in the cold mountains

Someone call Gaborey Sidibe and tell her that her year's over. This year it is Jennifer Lawrence, and once again a young actress demonstrates tremendous control of her instrument as an artist and performs a thoroughly convincing transformation. The film in question is the starkly poetic Winter's Bone. A mystery of unseen violence and unspoken threat, that despite its settings in the hills of Missouri is as hard-boiled as any tale of the city's mean streets.

This is as tough as film as you'll ever see, and at the center of it a pretty blond girl who could intimidate Lee Ermey with a glance. No, I'm not talking about the sexual intimidation of the attractive woman, but a person who catches and field-dresses her own food, ask any question and stare down a drug kingpin and a bounty hunter with equal, cold quiet ferocity.

That cold quiet is key, too. Because this is not a nostril-flaring, bark-chewing performance. This is a film of reticence, of the unsaid, and Lawrence is nothing if not a master of subtext. The film has been adapted from a book and the writers bemoaned the loss of the heroine's inner voice, which is a literary device. Instead, we have the film analog, the space between the words, a space fraught with tension and meaning for all the effort that has gone in speaking the words and in not speaking others. Michael Caine tells of the time early in his career, when an acting coach asked him what he was doing in a scene in which he had no lines. "Nothing," said the young drama student. "No," said the teacher, "You are thinking of dozens and dozens of brilliant and fascinating things to say, and then...choosing not to say them."

Only here what Ree doesn't say could get her killed. Even then, she won't stop asking questions, questions about her father, the meth lab cook who has disappeared and put the family in jeopardy of losing their home to the bail bondsmen. Like Phillip Marlowe, Ree will not stop asking questions, even if she gets beat up for it. The beating seems like a minor annoyance, no greater an annoyance than getting her beaten face cleaned up.

And as in Chandler (creator of Marlowe), some of the dialogue is terse modern poetry: "Never ask for what ought to be offered." To a threatening policeman, with whom the speaker has a history: "Is this going to be our time?" "I done told you to shut up once with my mouth." “I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back”

And there is the more vivid poetry of the music. There is an underscore, and it is understated, considering some of the gothic horrors at hand. But more memorable is the foreground old-timey music, much of it performed onscreen. And I have to admit, I am always a sucker for the old tune, "Tiny Sparrow." Best old-timey music since Brother Where Art Thou. Best of all, it's not pushed on us, nor forced to comment on the story or point up tortured ironies. It just sidles up and gives a context as thoroughly as the hand-made porch the family sits on in the final, satisfying scene.

There is a lot of hooey in the internet about how authentic the film may or may not be. Suffice it to say that the novelist is happy with the film, so everyone else can shut up. Besides, it's not about how accurately the Ozarks are depicted. It's not a documentary on crystal meth or country life or anything else. The setting is rather abstracted, frankly, and that's as it should be, because the narrative has been boiled down to absolute essentials, and the details are for anthropologists. The story is almost Shakespearean -- the forsaken child seeking to reclaim a legacy and take responsibility for the continuation of the line. If Jessup was a wayward king who'd died in battle without a plan of succession, rather than a criminal trying to save his own butt, the conclusion of the story wouldn't be much different. (Yes, obviously the atmosphere is different, but that's just for variety.) If anything, the story feels like a dark fairy-tale, a feeling only intensified by the talisman which is dredged up from a near-frozen pond, a talisman which, having been retrieved by passing through great trials and hardships, solves the heroine's problems and gives her some measure of peace.

Besides Lawrence, John Hawkes and Dale Dickey are going to be cited for acting honors. (Dickey is playing the obverse side of the comic toothless hick she plays on shows like My Name is Earl, and without a trace of detachment or condescension.) The film is nominated for 7 Independent Spirit Awards as I write this, and I am willing to bet that Lawrence and the screenwriters will be remembered in the Oscar nominations. But that is all extrinsic to the movie, which does what movies do so well, putting together pictures of people-- by themselves and against a landscape -- people talking to, listening to and looking at each other and turning that into an absorbing and compelling story.

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