Monday, August 16, 2010

Winter's Bone

Though Winter’s Bone builds an atmosphere of dread, self-consciousness undermines its resonance.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her family in the Missouri Ozarks. Her drug dealing father, nowhere to be found, has put up their house and land as collateral for his bail. Ree vows to find him even as she cares for her younger siblings and mentally ill mother. She must face down hostile relatives to get to the truth behind her father’s disappearance and, more importantly, save her home.

Winter’s Bone (an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel ) feels like a cultural lesson in rural poverty. Close ups accompany tense moments. A shaky camera conveys the area’s rawness. Winter is captured in rare beauty, with its dead leaves, barren trees, and back roads. Scenes of everyday survival (including wood chopping and squirrel hunting) are interspersed with Ree’s search for her father. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ obvious (but largely successful) attempts at authenticity come across as manipulative. The unusual filmic setting is the foreground, which makes the characters somewhat secondary.

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Ree, but her character is difficult to identify with. A youth with troubles beyond anyone’s years is not unrealistic, but Ree is nearly perfect. Unselfish, wise, understanding, tough, and above all determined, Ree is willing to sacrifice everything for her wards, without ever losing her temper with them. She has bouts of insecurity and naïveté, but she is more admirable than interesting.

The acting is quite good, though little liveliness is shown. Characters’ pinched cheeks, chapped lips, and grim faces are realistic, but few leave an impression. In fact the only fascinating presence is Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree’s coke addicted uncle. Ambiguous and scary but loyal, Teardrop is not someone you want as an enemy.

Overly poetic dialogue jars with the rest of the film’s painstaking attempts at realism. Saintly Ree gives her brother advice such as “don’t ask for what ought to be offered,” and notes that she is a “Dolly, bred and buttered.” Also, Ree’s search gets rather repetitive as she is told by person after person to give up her quest.

Since images of barren trees and a haunting, gorgeous soundtrack evoke an ominous mood from the beginning, any darkness that lies within the community doesn’t come as a shock. More surprising are the displays of genuine kindness. More astonishing still in this gothic tale would have been expressions joy or dynamism.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Devastating War Zone

Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is an adolescent, which means he is as internally tumultuous as Devon’s weather. He and his family have transferred from London to an isolated country house near the sea. His pregnant mother (Tilda Swinton) quietly misses London, but his father (Ray Winstone) and older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) stay occupied with work and college searches. The family spends their days trudging through rain or cozying up at home. They hardly notice when Tom, already sullen, discovers something that shakes him into near silence.

The War Zone (based on a book by Alexander Stuart) depicts a situation that is theoretically simple and in actuality anything but. Told from the perspective not of a knowing outsider but of innocence as it is being lost, Tim Roth’s directorial debut is uniquely powerful. Its most appalling moments are justified, even crucial.

The camera lingers on small figures surrounded by green and gray and pummeled by the elements. The ocean’s rhythmic violence and the setting’s physical remoteness clearly reflect the family’s emotional trials. The repetitive, sometimes sentimental soundtrack is still effective.

Tom’s impenetrability ultimately works, but Cunliffe’s lack of expressions is off-putting in comparison to Belmont’s harrowing performance as Jessie. Thespians Swinton and Winstone are understated and excellent as the parents. The sparse, mumbled dialogue is naturalistic if occasionally heavy handed (and difficult for Americans to understand).

The film offers no explanations and leaves on an ambiguous note, forcing viewers to identify with its tender protagonists. In spite of its bleak portrayal of youth overwhelmed by confusion, The War Zone has changed lives. Realistic in a way few movies are, its very existence dispels myths, fosters sympathy, and inspires confessions. The film’s flaws do not detract from its rare significance.