Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Winter's Bone" Review

Debra Granik, director of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, “Winter’s Bone,” exhibits a rare confidence in her vision that nearly supersedes criticism. Her film is a portrait, and her brush-strokes are so self-assured that I suspect she could provide two diametrically opposed interpretations and pass a polygraph test with flying colors each time.

In a way, that’s what nags me about it. My stubborn inclination, despite the potent, pea-soup atmosphere of dilapidated shacks and leering, shadowy characters, is to dismiss it all as ‘almost great.’ The story is kick-started by a strong, simple premise—That 17 year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) must track down her father who, having put the family house up for a bail bond, must be returned by his court date—Which quickly escalates into an engrossing high-stakes mystery when she starts asking questions of the wrong (or is it right?) people.

And yet the experience receded promptly in my mind. Why is it that I should consider Granik’s film anything less than one of the year’s best, immediately worth recommending? I suppose my expectations are partially at fault for the traces of disappointment laced with my enjoyment of the film. I had been hearing scattered but decisive praise for “Winter’s Bone” over the last few weeks, and I went to the theater having only seen the trailer. Usually, the less I know about a film, the more chance it has to genuinely surprise me, but in this case it felt like the story built to an early peak it couldn’t outclimb—Or rather, didn’t try to. The early twists seem to precipitate later ones that never come.

Nevertheless, Granik’s authenticity in mimicking (and in many cases, simply capturing) the feel of the rural, dirt-poor Missouri communities is so complete that it’s hard not to fall into the moment. The pacing is perfect, and it’s a compliment that my greatest complaint is its straightforwardness. “Winter’s Bone” washes over its viewers like a cool fog; it can be slow, but our heart rates seems to slow with it. In more tense scenes, Granik’s direct line to our pulse is only more apparent.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that her characters, in addition to being vessels for a mood, also have the propensity to be very funny. It’s more than that though; somehow they don’t feel like characters at all. It’s not that they’re particularly deep or fantastically realized—They just seem real, even at the expense, in several cases, of being great fictional personages. They joke, they allude, they threaten, they share; they exist as an extension of the environment rather than pawns of the plot.

And perhaps the same can be said for the story. Maybe I was expecting something more conventionally thrilling, when what I was offered was a convincing, if very down-to-earth, mystery. The way it unravels is involving—It just never reaches that ‘Coen brothers’ level of (very showy) brilliance, and Granik isn’t trying to be clever. She’s a painter, not a writer.

I still can’t bring myself to call “Winter’s Bone” a great film, but paradoxically, I do think the filmmaking is great. Granik is an unflinching director, the best kind. However, as a matter of personal preference, her style stands in stark contrast to that of my favorite auteurs: Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Tarantino, Lynch, the Coens. Granik seems more intent on publishing authenticity than cramming it through some self-stylized filter, and the result is a film of uncommon honesty. I guess that caught me off guard.

Next time, though, I’ll be willing to take her at her word. No lie-detector test necessary.


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