i see a darkness

i was finally able to see debra granik's winter's bone (2010) this week and it surpassed my every expectation - damn high expectations, at that.

the story centers on ree dolly, a seventeen year-old girl living in southern missouri who is heroically raising her younger brother and sister amidst the wreckage of a culture decimated by poverty and the attendant epidemic of methamphetamine manufacture/addiction that follows swiftly on its heels. her near-catatonic mother is of no help in the daily struggle to keep the wolf from the door and her father, chief among the meth cookers, has jumped bail, leaving the family homestead at risk of seizure. ree has about a week to get her father into court or they will be turned out of their home. clock ticking, she sets out to find some answers.

now, when my dad was a much younger man, he knew one or two unsavory types. he was no criminal, but he probably had a weekend or two that ended with him picking parking lot gravel out of his face and he damn sure knew a couple of guys that you didn't ask a whole lot of questions of. because of this, very early on, he impressed upon me the importance of certain things - listen first and listen hard, mind your business and if you are not the man in the room who is willing to go further than everyone else you had best be able to quickly ascertain who is and keep a close eye on him. unfortunately for ree dolly, she doesn't have my old man around. she is forced to figure these things out on her own, working on instinct. complicating the matter is the fact that the nest of vipers she is forced to navigate is almost all family - suspicious, nefarious and potentially deadly family.

ree's circumstances are firmly, but economically, established immediately. the landscape is littered with remnants of someone else's consumption. it looks almost post-apocalyptic, as if those who remain are surviving with only with the cast-off provisions hastily left behind by those who were able to escape. most of the time the soundtrack consists only of scattered, distant rifle reports and the barking of scavenging dogs. with a simple trip through this backdrop to deliver her siblings to school, granik underlines ree's isolation with a trio of shots of her observing the activity in the school, all three of which she observes through the narrow windows of classroom doors. in every instance there is a barrier between her and what should be her normal, seventeen year-old life. in every instance we see her rigidly and narrowly framed, on the outside looking in. when she is the object of scrutiny her isolation is even more pronounced - the shifting gaze of every other character in her sphere cataloging her movements and conversations with sheriffs and bail bondsmen. more than once in the film she is handled almost like livestock, rough hands pulling her face close, examining her as if she were an animal they don't know what to do with. to a degree, it's true. her nobility makes her a rare breed among her kin, ancient and preternatural at once. she is operating on a plane they cannot hope to understand and it is precisely because of that that she makes it through her odyssey alive, one beating wiser, one beating tougher.

i can't say enough good things about jennifer lawrence's performance in this. what she communicates is powerful, especially so because she does it with such understatement. it is never too much, even though anyone facing these dire circumstances would have a right to be a little melodramatic. even when charged with the horrifying task of retrieving the evidence that will verify her father's death she is not hysterical, only very real. she imbues this character with a steadfastness and love that leaves you with no doubt that this child would walk straight into the mouth of hell to protect her brother and sister. she faces trials that would be terrifying to most adults and she does it without protest. if she asks for anything from these bastards it's only for a square deal. she never misses an opportunity to give the kids another lesson that will allow them to make their way in this world, another skill they are going to need to survive. she manages all this while demonstrating an innate understanding of when to observe and when to ignore the protocols that dictate the smallest interactions in this pocket of the ozarks. her heart is exhibit A for the important difference between resolve and resignation. and on top of all this, she goes toe to toe with john hawkes.

and he is not a man to be trifled with here. he plays her uncle, teardrop, brother to the missing father and he is the aforementioned man who is willing to go further than you. this makes him a sort of teacher also, though he administers lessons you hope you are never in a position to need to learn. he, too, understands and abides by certain codes and family is, without a doubt, at the center of those. it is that fact that eventually brings him to ree's aid in her hour of darkness. you watch the way this man and this girl dig into this deadly business and you know you are watching an old, old story. they are the two sides of humanity's oldest coin - blood money - and they invest this story with a such a grim understanding and deep acknowledgment of humanity's profound and ineluctable struggles and limitations that you feel as if it is almost detached in time.

as strong as the two central performances are, the success of this film rests on it being a truly ensemble piece, and i am not referring to just the cast. i mean that in the most inclusive sense because without granik and company's respectful and thoughtful interaction with the community, and the dedication, effort and friendship received in return, you would have no film. the work and care everyone put in is evident and granik never adopts a mocking or derisive tone. none of the principals give any indication of feeling they are above the material and that is crucial. without that, it wouldn't hold up. it would fail. as it stands, it resulted in one of the best things from 2010 and is evocative of the best part of ree's most complicated lesson to her brother and sister.

"never ask for what ought to be offered."


  1. Excellent work on an excellent film sir.

    Hawkes really is the most fascinating character I encountered in Fiction this year. You've got to fascinated someone with enough good left in him to be willing to kill and die for a person, but so hollowed out as to offer her Crystal Meth.

    But he's only so good because of Ree. If she didn't seem so worth saving, the entire movie wouldn't work half as well.

  2. thanks, bryce. i am haunted by this thing.

    and you putting it at the top of your list gets you a free pass on scott pilgrim.

    p.s. are you on facebook? come chime in on the vitagraph page and kick this stuff around with us over there too! it would be great to have your participation.