Sunday, 10 October 2010

'I'd be lost without the weight of you two on my back'

17 year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), the focus of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, doesn't have it easy. Abandoned by a feckless dad and left to look after two kid siblings and a mentally ill Mum, she's been robbed of her teenage years. If things look bad at the start of the film, as she spends long grey days chopping wood and begging neighbours for supplies, they're about to get a lot worse. A local sheriff drops by to let Ree know that her dad jumped bail. Since he put the house she struggles to maintain up as bond, her family will be left homeless unless she can track him down. So begins her meet and greet with the strange folk of the Ozark Mountains.

The Ozark Mountains don't seem like they're much of a tourist spot. Stuck out in southern Missouri, in the Midwest, Ree's home town is eerily isolated from any discernible sources of industry or recreation. The sound of the film is characterised throughout by the dull thud of axe blades on wet wood and dogs barking in the distance. Life moves slowly here, but it's not just a place of quiet innocence. In the absence of any notable industry to sustain life in the sticks, crystal meth has become a main source of commerce. Though there's barely any explicit reference to the drug – only that Ree's dad 'cooks' – it becomes apparent that it dominates Ree's community.

To Granik’s credit is the fact that this aspect of the plot is subtly underplayed. The film doesn’t become a shrieking tabloid piece about a society on drugs. Instead it is a meditation on the way people alter their minds when they can’t alter their environments. And it’s not just crystal meth. Ree’s ill mother is constantly sedated on medication; it is for this reason that Ree can’t count on her. When Ree is badly beaten after asking the wrong person about her dad’s whereabouts, a neighbour offers painkillers, warning: ‘She’s gonna want more but start her with two’.

Ree’s uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), is a neat embodiment of the film’s major themes. In one scene, he approaches from behind as Ree chops wood and the brooding hum of the chainsaw becomes heightened in the soundtrack. The shifty menace Teardrop exudes is a constant source of tension. It transpires that this menace stems not from innate cruelty but from a life lived on the fringes. The knife-edge relationship he shares with Ree echoes that which she shares with her siblings. There's a scene in which she teaches her brother and sister to fire a rifle over a plastic picnic bench - in Teardrop’s violence, too, emerges tenderness. Life can be cruel but it’s crueller without your family, even if standing by them makes things worse in the short-term.

The film has been cleaning up at the film festivals. It's picked up awards at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival; Jennifer Lawrence is widely tipped for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree. And with good reason. Winter's Bone is a haunting elegy on the importance of family in rural life – and what happens if that family splinters. Ree captures it best when she tell her brother and sister: ‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back’.

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1 comment:

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