Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some People Struggle Very Hard to Keep Their Families Together

Winter's Bone 17-year-old heroine, Ree Dolly, with her younger brother and sister.

Winter's Bone, based on the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell, won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize this year. Set in the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri, the film, directed by Debra Granik, tells the story of Ree Dolly, daughter in a family heavily involved in producing the highly addictive drug, crystal methamphetamine, or "crank." Because her father has jumped bail and signed over title to the family's land and house to pay his bond, the 17-year-old Ree vows to find him to keep a roof over the head of her remaining family: her brother and sister and her mother who has slipped into catatonic mental illness.

The sacrifice Ree is willing to bear, her determination, and the pain she suffers in her search are difficult to comprehend. One wonders that she has not followed her mother's road into obliviousness.

I suspect that the cruel codes of a criminal drug culture are the same everywhere, no matter who is involved, and no matter what the drug. The story could have been taken place in any city in the U.S.A.

What distinguishes Winter's Bone is that the setting is one most Americans are not familiar with and have seen little of in film; we have not been inured to it. Far from milking the sterotype of "hillbilly" though, the film forces us to confront real human beings, their faces taut with conflicting emotions--compassion and cruelty--who are trapped. We are forced to take in this reality in a profound way because there is no Hollywood gloss, no stylization, no pulling back from the harshness, no attempt to draw attention to acting, no artistic flourishes for the sake of artistic flourishes--the film is entirely at the service of the subject. While Winter's Bone revolves around violence-- both the threats and the results of it, we do not see much violent action per se. The removal of violent acts from the film eliminates, it became clear as I thought about it, a major method of Hollywood gloss that functions to anaesthetize the audience. There is also no unrelenting drive to doom--another Hollywood method to distance us from what we are seeing.

I have seen many films, some of which changed my life. I have seen many sad films, the postwar Italian realist films being among the saddest. No movie has ever moved me as much as Winter's Bone. The only film that it calls to my mind is Charles Burnett's independent sleeper of 1977, Killer of Sheep, which explores the life of an African American family in Watts.

I know that Winter's Bone reflects a harshness that is the life for a sizable swath of rural Americans. For a documentary glimpse of this world, which proves that Winter's Bone is not "stretching things," you can see on You Tube Diane Sawyers' "Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," which first aired in February 2009.

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