Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tough Life

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik, is a gripping drama, and even if it’s less accurate as anthropology than it seems, it’s still an eye-opener. Jennifer Lawrence plays 17-year-old Ree Dolly, living in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains and a primary caregiver to her younger brother and sister; her mother is virtually catatonic. Her father - a local drug-dealer and –manufacturer (this seemingly being the primary local industry) has disappeared; faced with losing the house to the bonding company unless she gets him to make his next court appearance, she sets out to look for him. It’s not exactly an amateur detective story – it’s not that his whereabouts are inherently mysterious, just that people won’t tell her.

Winter’s Bone

The movie is most fascinating simply when following Ree around the neighborhood – a topography of wrecked cars, piled-up tires and general drabness, with dogs chained or sniffing round in every yard (I lost count of how many animals seem attached to Ree’s household at various points); guns are commonplace, and Ree herself is a crack shot who’s already starting to teach her siblings. She’s at least vaguely related to just about everyone in the neighborhood, but those ties only take her so far – the people here have narrow but (to them anyway) clearly defined interests, and they hang on to them self-righteously and tenaciously. Symbols of authority, or any kind of outsiders, attract almost comically exaggerated suspicion: the biggest local crime, of course, is talking to the law (it’s possible Granik overstates the community’s isolation – this is one of the few present-day movies lacking any signs of telephones, the Internet, video games, or even television). What we see of Ree’s school is limited to a baby care class and to military recruitment drives and drilling exercises, both embodying limited choices and unthinking continuity: no one in the movie ever says anything vaguely aspirational or abstract. Like the recent The Lucky Ones, the movie gets across the troubling allure of the army’s $40,000 signing bonus, an avenue constituting Ree’s only half-formed plan of escape, if escape were possible at all.

Sexual attitudes are predictably troubling – the women are outspoken and gritty, but the men still push them around. Ree herself though never betrays a sexual thought or expectation, again almost unprecedented for a character of her age in recent movies. Lawrence is terrific in the lead role, as steely-eyed and sure of herself as a noir hero, but with sufficient vulnerability to form a rounded character. To say the least though, she seems like a quirk of evolution, much more beautiful than the lived-in faces around her, and less constrained by received attitudes. This adds an additional poignancy to the way she’s accepted, for now at least, the inevitability of her caregiver role, but also gives the film an air of canny calculation. In the same vein, it has a couple of surefire squirm moments involving dead bodies of different species, which can’t help but feel partially calculated to shake up any sense of excessive asceticism. And near the very end, Ree demonstrates a coolness about money that seems unlikely in someone so desperately in need of it.

Squirm Moments

Which is only to say, I suppose, it’s fiction, not a documentary. But at the same time, Granik retains a sure sense of how things might become melodramatic, and manages to retain her composure. Movies often over-indulge the violent swagger of local big shots, but it’s held in check here. Her previous film was Down To The Bone, another gritty small-scale drama praised in particular for Vera Farmiga’s performance. I haven’t seen it, but among the ever-growing band of women working in a tougher vein, Granik seems like a sharper operator than (say) Frozen River’s Courtney Hunt, while being less original, and cinematically fluent than Wendy and Lucy’s quietly thrilling Kelly Reichhardt (I realize this grouping is arbitrary and perhaps a little demeaning, but if you can remember the time when the only high-profile female American directors were Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand, it’s also a celebration).

At the end, Ree sits there with her brother and sister, and with two chicks their uncle gave them (a symbol of renewal of sorts) telling them she’d be lost without the weight of them on her back, an expression of love that also acknowledges the burden of it, and looks off into the middle distance, where you suspect she doesn’t see that much. I couldn’t help thinking how alien Washington and much of the things that consume the national conversation must seem from such standpoints, a distance that might provide strength of purpose at times, but only by increasingly severing the chances of ever closing the gap.

New York, I Love You

Well, back to fluffland then. Paris je t’aime, a compilation of twenty short films filmed in the City of Love a few years ago, was no big deal, but at least it had some tonal variety – if you got tired of one strand, there was always something else just around the corner. The next film in an intended series, set in New York (now on DVD), doesn’t have that advantage – it has fewer segments, and they all feel pretty much the same: wistful, bittersweet, reflective, ironic…you know the deal. It has a great cast – Julie Christie, Natalie Portman, James Caan, and many others – but they all feel like they had a gun at their heads, with their lives depending on being cute. New York doesn’t even seem loved here, except in the sense that the people must be grateful for an environment where they can behave like such boobs. The end credits promise yet another installment, set in Shanghai, but I doubt that even the Chinese dragon can slay this particular deficit.

I also caught up with last year’s The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, with Robin Wright (who’s also in New York, I Love You) as the quiet, supportive wife of a much older man (Alan Arkin), questioning her life a bit more after they move to a retirement community. It’s written by Rebecca Miller, who made the intriguing Personal Velocity, and sets itself an interesting premise – a woman so self-effacing and undemanding (as an over-reaction to problems in her earlier years) she almost disappears, even from herself, with her lack of an inner life starting to manifest itself through sleepwalking. Unfortunately, Miller doesn’t bring much inspiration to any of it, and things play out in a predictable, unenlightening way. You know, I’m pretty tolerant of people doing the best they can with the cards they’re dealt, but it’s hard not to dismiss most of the characters in these latter two movies as self-absorbed whiners, who could learn a lot from an unadorned two-week stint in the Ozarks.

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