Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blood Ties (Winter's Bone, Mother, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada)

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.


Craig said...

Test comment. Only a test.

Edward Copeland said...

It works for me now. I haven't seen the first two, so I skipped ahead to the Melquiades Estrada part, since that was my favorite film of 2005. I didn't even realize January Jones was in it, but I had no idea who she was then. Actually, as much as Betty Draper annoys me, I kind of long for that time.

Jason Bellamy said...

Only read the first review because I haven't seen the other two. Some thoughts ...

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.

Fuck you, that's a great paragraph of analysis. On the condescension part, I came across some negative review of the film (can't remember who wrote it) who suggested that the film ogled its backwoods characters, perhaps even comparing it to Precious. My take is that if Winter's Bone is condescending to its characters, well, shit, we just can't make any movies with folks who have wrinkles or waists wider than 34 inches. I'm going to sob if we've really gotten to the point where casting actors who might not be attractive is seen as a tactic to take advantage of them to reinforce our own sense of superiority. I mean, aren't people aware of the obesity epidemic in this country? Anyway ...

You mentioned the "doing ask for what ought to be offered" quote, as did a few other reviewers I read. But the line that popped for me, which I mentioned in my review, was the one Ree delivers to her brother during the squirrel skinning scene: "There’s a bunch a things you gotta get over being afraid of." If that doesn't perfectly describe Ree's "I've got no other choice" approach to her search for her father, I don't know what does.

Great review, man.

Craig said...

Thanks for weighing in, Jason. It was your review that convinced me to see "Winter's Bone" in the first place.

I think it was Stephanie Zacharek who compared "Winter's Bone" to "Precious," though oddly she touts several scenes that contradict her point. To use one of her own examples, if the film had wanted to rub our noses in Ree's plight then I think we would have seen a different reaction from the Army recruiter who gently turns Ree down while giving her an opening to try again in another year, when her family no longer needs her. Another movie would have had him sneer at her. There would have been a lot more sneering from other characters in the movie, in fact. But as Edelstein said, Granik doesn't let her actors go dead (as Von Trier or Haneke are wont to do); there's internal conflict in everyone's eyes, more than a few misgivings about what they're doing.

I'm glad you mentioned the squirrel scene, since initially that was the one time I thought the film was rubbing our noses in it a little. For some audience members, I could see it as a dealbreaker scene that causes them to flee the theater and miss out on a very good film with very little violence to object to. (It's interesting that the only beating Ree gets is from other women.) On the other hand, I also thought, Well, it's true. And it shows a lot about Ree's character, as you said.

Jason Bellamy said...

Well, it's true.

Exactly! And if filmmakers avoid it because they think it's condescending, well, that is condescending.

None of my family comes from anything like what's represented in this film, but I'm only one generation removed from folks who, yep, raised rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese to eat them (and/or their eggs). My mom mucked stalls in 4-H. My uncles skinned rabbits.

They didn't necessarily do it to stave off starvation, as Ree does. But it was a regular way of life, like Ree's neighbors slicing up that deer.

People lived that way not too long ago and still live that way today. Nothing wrong with reflecting that. It's not like they turned Ree into a punching bag and asked us believe she walked into the perfect storm of misery. That would be Precious.

Craig said...

I think what bothered me was the placement of that scene. I can't recall what came before it, but I remember it feeling like a rare instance where Granik didn't balance the harder realities of that culture with either a poetic image or an instance of a character behaving with surprising decency. The movie recovered soon afterward, though.

That scene also prepares us for the climax, which manages to be grisly without being violent. Strangely moving, too. The matriarch of the clan tells Ree, "Your father would have wanted you to do this," and she's right.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Just now got to see this (it JUST arrived in Salem!) and I put my thoughts up on the blog. I think Kyle Smith had something to say too about the film being exploitative of its "backwoods" characters. I didn't see it that way because I never felt like the filmmakers were "above" the subjects of the film (much like the smugness found in the approach to films like PRECIOUS and FROZEN RIVER, even though I liked the latter for its performances).

I see a lot of this community in the "parents" (I use quotes because they really aren't parents in the sense that they care for their kids too much) of my students at the school I teach at. I have to say: the makeup people did a great job showing the meth-ravaged faces of these characters. It's a subtle thing, but I noticed it a lot. Also, I loved how astute the observations were inside people's houses (the metal music in the background, the milk cartons and "cooking" equipment on kitchen counters, the tires in the yard)...I'm tellin' ya, this film is pretty dead-on with its look. I've seen these living conditions first hand.

It's a brilliant film that reminded me some of the explication of blood ties in Jeff Nichols' SHOTGUN STORIES. And my god that boat scene is about the perfect bit of mise-en-scene I've seen in a movie this year. Just absolutely fucking brilliant.

As usual your thoughts about a film give me more to think about, Craig. Nice work!

Craig said...

Glad you got to see "Winter's Bone," Kevin (and that it finally arrived to where you are!). Hadn't thought of the comparison to "Shotgun Stories" but you're right, they are similar in the approach to their material. This is one my top-three favorite movies so far this year.