Monday, December 27, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010)

The film is set in the Ozark mountains of the US, a region with a distinctive culture and terrain. I understand that the speech and manners have been authentically captured but for me this is as difficult to appreciate as would be for an American to distiguish, say, Kerala from Punjab. The film relates to the survival struggle of seventeen year old Ree, who takes care of her younger brother and sister and mentally incapacitated mother. The father belongs to a community of small time impoverished drug (amphetamine) makers and users and is currently on bail, having pledged the humble homestead as surety. Since he fails to appear in court, the family faces homelessness. The film relates to the heroic struggle of  young Ree in the subculture with it's brutal code of dealing with informers.

The film is too culture specific to it's country and the atypical social group among whom it is set to have much impact. It is neither here nor there--it is never quite able to decide whether to be a sociological study of a sub-culture or a human drama. It winds up as Americana and folk-lore. It fails to rise above sentimentality and caricature. On a human plane, the teenager's gritty battle in harrowing circumstances does evoke respect and admiration, specially the unusual emergence of character in such a hopeless, drug-infested environment--perhaps that is precisely the cause. Adversity, like war, brings out both the best and the worst.

The film reminds me of Kore-eda's Nobody Knows which is able to paint a more powerful picture of abandonment right in the middle of a booming metropolis without the props of an outlandish backdrop of drug sozzled hill-bills or hands being chainsawed off a dead body (Winter's Bone). Kore-eda's film is a searing indictment of individuals being ground in the blind wheels of a civilized society.


Nathanael Hood said...


Well...I personally loved it and think that it is one of the best films of the year...

That probably has something to do with the fact that I was born and raised near where the film takes place, so I was able to perfectly understand what they were saying.

In some films from English speaking countries where the accents are particularly thick, here in America they add subtitles. Take "Blood Diamond" with Leonardo De Caprio. Most of the film was in perfect English. But the accent was so hard to understand for most Americans that they added subtitles. Do you think that subtitles would have helped you appreciate the film?

Personally, as someone who grew up in near that area, I found the screenplay to be rich in Americana-esque dialogue, similar to the best writings of Faulkner and Twain. My favorite line was, "Never ask for something that ought to be offered." I know writers who would KILL to write ONE sentence that had that much truth to it.

I also found the film to be reminiscent of gangster films, believe it or not. The entire community was a kind of drug syndicate that had highly structured and defined rules, regulations, and social orders. It reminded me of "The Godfather" where there was a strict social hierarchy that was sacrosanct.

S. M. Rana said...

Incidentally, I did have subtitles and was able to perfectly follow the plot. But language is such a complex thing and I am quite sure that things said in my own mother tongue with all inflexions and shades can only be fully understood only by a local. For example, the degree of immersion and identification I experience in a Ray film is not possible with Bergman, Kurosawa, or the best of American directors. Tarkovsky said it's not possible to fully appreciate a film of a different culture. One can to a degree, and that's all the more reason to make bridges.

Someone had said "The Godfather" is either all about family, or alternately, corporate life (stretching the meaning of corporation to the Mafia). It was about the italianate sub-culture. The present movie can't decide whether it's telling us about a particular sub-culture of hill folk eking out survival outside the frame of law, or about a gritty young woman.

It's nice, it's good, but maybe short of great. But it's pure American, and I may nave blind spots to it's intrinsic flavor. Since you grew up near there, I cede to your evaluation.

Nathanael Hood said...

Well...just because I grew up in the area doesn't mean that my evaluation is superior.

As for the film, I think that it is ABOUT the young woman INSIDE her society. It's the same way you can argue that "The Godfather" is about Michael Corleone trying to find his way within his "family." In both films, the community, or "family," is the setting, but the main character is the focus.

As to what Tarkovsky said, I totally disagree. I may not be able to understand all of the nuances in a film made by another culture...but I can still understand, appreciate, and love it.

For example, I was not born or raised in India. But I can still appreciate Ray's "Apu Trilogy" because I can identify with the ever present themes of family life and personal growth.

I would actually argue that instead of being a medium that is culturally isolation, the cinema is the greatest art form that exists through which we can be exposed to other cultures.

Read my "Skirt Power" review for more details concerning this argument...but only if you want to.

That's one of the reasons why I think that "Winter's Bone" is so great: it exists within a particular cultural reality, but at its core it is about a young women fighting adversity for the sake of her family. That is as universal a story as one can find.

S. M. Rana said...

Of course people are the same even in remote Tibet as the wonderful "Horse Thief" proves. After all, they are one species. To quote Ebert, the more specific is the more universal. Tarkovsky probably means it's tough, but we surely have the capacity to see through barriers of of all sorts (gender, nationality etc) and cinema is a medium of choice.

Nathanael Hood said...

Oh definitely.

But...putting that subject aside...

I also think that it was an incredible film for its cinematography, performances, and directing. Did you know that this was the director's second film!?!?

(She's also a graduate of one of the film schools that I am applying to.)

S. M. Rana said...

She's certainly as good as as that Thai guy and at least has a less tongue twisting name. Well, I'm sure hoping you make it to a real good film school--you can put me in your advance list of fans!

Anonymous said...

While watching it, I wondered whether a cold, bitter indie winter drama was becoming the genre of its own, but the movie is the best of its kind.

S. M. Rana said...

@kaist455: I'm reminded of these lines from Shakespeare:

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit! To-who!—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doe blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit! To-who!—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Jack L said...

Excellent review as always,

I haven't seen this one but I can't say I'm compelled too, as a European I often find it hard to appreciate US films focused on specific areas of that country, I'm willing to give it a try though due to the high praise it has received.

I've heard that the lead actress's performance was particularly good, some even say the film is worth seeing for her alone, would you agree with that?

S. M. Rana said...


The lead actresses performance is not unforgettable. She is tough, stoic, manly but short of charm or charisma.

I usually prefer a time worn masterpiece(there are so many)to the current rage but in the Oscar season one tends to see some of the contenders to be in step with the time.

An indifferent film.

Jack L said...

I see what you mean, I personally prefer the more charismatic performances and the actors with impressive screen presences...

I tend to concentrate more on classic films as well, and I fail to get excited about the Oscars as I seem to be in perpetual disagreement with their choices, but of course I end up seeing most of the nominees at some time or another just to see for myself in they were really deserving, sadly they generally aren't...

S. M. Rana said...

@Jack L

This years Oscar's List--I am going by Ebert's list of 10 best films of 2010--has not yielded anything impressive. I plan to see some more.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer Lawrence is great in this film, and my issues with it had more to do with its lack of structure and sudden appearance of structure more than anything else, which made the pacing somewhat strange. Still, it deserves a lot of the praise it is given.

I do agree that Kore-eda's film is better, but then, Kore-eda is one of the greatest living directors.

S. M. Rana said...

Greg: We seem to be in agreement about this movie as well as Kore-eda.