Warning: Possible spoilers.
Which is more astonishing -- an impressive special effects sequence or an unexpected character development? I don't pose this to come across as a fuddy-duddy. (Wait until the end of the paragraph, where my fuddy-duddyism will become truly apparent.) Thirty years ago, when actual characters in movies were taken for granted and sophisticated F/X was still evolving, my answer, at least, may have been different. Over the past week, however, I've been bored by the effects-laden Inception and riveted by the character-driven Winter's Bone, reactions that sum up my general response to current cinema. I didn't care what happened to anyone in the former film; whereas not only did I care about the people in the latter, I was often amazed by what happened to them.
Winter's Bone has been called an "Ozark noir," and indeed the movie is as absorbing as the finest examples of the mystery-suspense genre without being constricted by its trappings. (The film is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell.) Modern-day rural Missouri makes for an original setting, and Ree Dolly (played with remarkably unforced self-assurance by Jennifer Lawrence) an appealingly unique heroine. A 17-year-old girl forced to look after her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings in a small, run-down house in the woods, Ree spends the film desperately trying to locate her father, Jessup, a "cooker" of meth who abruptly vanishes before a scheduled court appearance. If Jessup misses the court date, Ree's family will lose their home.
The quest takes Ree through the cold, rustic heart of southern Mizzou and into increasingly dangerous encounters with her extended kin. Both landscape and family are vast yet oppressive, with secrets buried as deeply as Ree's determination to uncover them. Debra Granik, who directed the movie and co-wrote the script, hews close to her protagonist, so that we decipher clues the instant Ree does. (Lawrence is in every scene.) The deadliest puzzles involve interpreting the actions of other members of the Dolly family, who are all involved in the meth trade and go by names like Teardrop (John Hawkes), Thump (Ronnie Hall) and Merab (Dale Dickey). In the Dolly clan, menace and magnanimity turn on a dime; and each scene unfolds with utter unpredictability, where even a cup of coffee could be either a gift or a weapon.
Winter's Bone wanders into a minefield of potential cliches and stereotypes and, like its heroine, rarely steps wrong. Granik betrays not a whiff of condescension for her characters: in their homes, the expected signs of poverty (dirty dishes piled in sinks, tires scattered in yards) are offset by loving displays of photographs, cards and drawings on refrigerators and in scrapbooks. (In the opening scene we are even treated to children laughing, a sight and sound far away from the films of Kelly Reichardt.) Granik draws us deeply into the entrenched history of these families, lets us observe their unspoken rituals and codes. Men may claim to rule this world, but it is women who function as gatekeepers and make the crucial decisions.
In addition to the central mystery, I was fascinated by the investigation of a key theme, spelled out at one point by Ree to her brother and sister as "Never ask (for help), wait til it's offered." Amid the hostilities are sudden acts of kindness, as when a neighbor stops by with food, or a selfish blowhard is talked out of the keys to his truck, or a macho drug addict's physical threats ("I already told you to shut up once with my mouth") are belied by provisions of cash and aid. Yet this last character, Teardrop, who is Ree's brother-in-law, transforms from a passive bystander to an active ally, eventually telling Ree that there are times to stir the pot rather than hoping idly that answers come to them.
Winter's Bone is the increasingly rare film that puts character at the forefront of story, and in so doing allows its actors a chance to shine. Lawrence gives a tremendously physical performance, simultaneously headstrong and vulnerable, wearing her dilapidated jacket and stocking cap like a frayed coat of armor. Hawkes, normally typecast as wimps and snitches, startles as the gruff, grizzled Teardrop. (He shares one of the best scenes in the movie -- a tense standoff with the county sheriff -- through a rearview mirror with fellow Deadwood alum Garret Dillahunt.) The bulky, purposeful Hall is terrifying in a nearly wordless turn as Thump Milton, while Dickey, as Thump's wife Merab -- as hard-edged as she is impenetrable -- inspired David Edelstein to marvel "that you could watch this performance a hundred times and never get to the bottom of it." In another venue, Edelstein responded to the accusation that he likes only "smaller independent films that touch no one's hearts and don't matter at all" by countering that Winter's Bone "matters a great deal and has touched many hearts." Without ever asking, it certainly touched mine.
I was looking eagerly forward to Mother, the new thriller by Bong Joon-ho, whose previous two features, Memories of Murder and The Host, ranked among my favorite movies of the aughts. In those films, Bong effortlessly juggled tragedy with farce. He's not above killing off children or depicting the mentally-challenged as the butt of jokes; yet those movies never settled for manipulative contrivances or cheap shots. They delve deeply into familial dynamics and character psychology; and they expand widely into cultural mores and political corruption. Bong is also a master of confounding expectations: in his films, smart people make costly mistakes, while fools have moments of grace.
Mother, though, feels like a step backwards to me. Like Memories of Murder, the movie revolves around the killing of a teenage girl, only this time the police assigned to the case are ancillary to the plot. The titular character (played by Hye-ja Kim) is instead a lower-class South Korean woman trying to prove the innocence of her son, Yoon (Bin Won), who does not take kindly to repeated taunts of "retard" yet on account of his mental disability and a load of circumstantial evidence is hastily rounded up as a scapegoat for the crime. Whereas Debra Granik invests complete empathy for her characters in Winter's Bone, I detected more than a bit of contempt in Bong's gaze for his. The first half of Mother is a long exercise in condescension, with Yoon's mom duped into false promises, blackmailed for money, and making one misstep after another in her efforts to crack the case. The second half of the film improves markedly, as the hidden-in-plain-sight clues are revealed, and the movie ends with a powerfully elusive image of Kim in the throes of denial or ecstasy or both. (Kim is excellent throughout.). But it's too little too late. Bong appears to be sacrificing his typically broader view for an intensive character study here, and I have no qualms with him trying again. I only hope that next time he goes down in the dirt that he conveys the impression that he's doing more than slumming.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), starring Tommy Lee Jones in his directorial debut, is a film I avoided over the past few years that turns out to be a real sleeper. Jones stars as a lonely Texas rancher who fulfills a vow to his dead best friend (the title character, played in flashbacks by Julio Cedillo) by taking his body across the border for a proper funeral in Mexico. Along for the ride against his will is Melquiades' killer, Mike, a hotheaded border patrolman (played by Barry Pepper). Rugged terrain, illegal immigrants, and temperamental rattlesnakes are encountered, hijinks ensue. The plot description may sound like one of John Sayles's civics lessons, yet Three Burials surprises with Jones the actor's slightly unhinged, self-effacing performance, and Jones the director's emphasis on dark humor. The array of physical punishments and psychological torments inflicted on Mike are horrifically funny and humanize the character.
I could have done without the Tarantinoesque title cards and the overly scrambled opening hour (the screenplay is by Guillermo Arriega, who wrote Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, and who must eat dinner in the morning and breakfast when it's dark). And I still don't know what to make of the fogged-in acting style of January Jones, who plays Mike's bored wife and gives a performance somewhere between her effective turn on Mad Men and her disastrous hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. Fortunately, most of the performances feel precise and lived-in; and Chris Menges, one of the best cinematographers in the world, gives us ravishing vistas to look at. At its best, Three Burials is a fascinating contemporary oater that depicts the cowboy way of life -- manly and violent, yet also tenuous and fragile -- in the manner of classic Westerns of yore.