I haven’t seen The King’s Speech yet (movies take a while to reach my neck of the woods), but my Academy Award choice, based on the films I’ve seen over the past year, is the grim and decidedly un-American Winter’s Bone.
I say un-American because Winter’s Bone, directed by the relatively unknown Debra Granik, defies most Hollywood conventions. There are no A-listers in the cast (indeed, no familiar names at all); the film is set in impoverished, backwoods Missouri, surely one of the least glamorous parts of the US; its characters for the most part are deeply unattractive; and it’s uncompromisingly bleak and depressing, save for a faint note of optimism at the finish.
Watching it, I was reminded of the harrowing films made in the 1960s by British director Kenneth Loach, who specialised in bringing working-class misery and despair to the screen, and more recently by Mike Leigh, another British master of what has been labelled kitchen-sink realism. Like their films, Winter’s Bone makes few concessions to viewers seeking fragments of optimism and human goodness.
Incongruously, at the screening I attended, there was laughter among the small audience when the closing credits rolled (against a lovely rendering of the country gospel standard Farther Along, a song that fittingly seeks to make sense of the wretched lives of the poor). I could only conclude the levity was triggered by relief that the film was over, because this is a movie unleavened by any humour, even of the dark Coen Brothers variety.
The central character is a teenage girl, Ree Dolly, who looks after, and is fiercely protective of, her little brother and sister. Their mother shares their rundown house but is physically and mentally helpless (we are not told why). Ree’s father, a methamphetamine cook named Jessup, has effectively abandoned the family.
The plot unfolds as Ree doggedly and courageously goes in search of her father after learning the house will be forfeited and the family cast out unless he turns up in court to face trial on drugs charges. It’s a quest that takes her into the dark heart of a feral, inbred, white-trash family – her father’s clannish relatives – who subsist, as far as we can gather, on income from clandestine meth labs, which seem (judging by this film) to have displaced the moonshine still in the economy of the rural south.
The film is unflinching in its portrayal of the abject way of life in this rural backwater where unemployment is endemic, families are reduced to shooting squirrels for the pot, and ramshackle houses are surrounded by mangy hounds, car wrecks, derelict machinery and other detritus. The characters are truly menacing, and none more so than the wife of the local clan boss and crime kingpin – a woman who has clearly learned that the only way to survive in this godforsaken society is by being as tough as the most brutal menfolk. The role is played with frightening intensity by an actress who, like most of the cast, was unfamiliar to me. (I can’t even identify her, since I never caught her character’s name.)
The outcome of the film is almost immaterial. Its strength lies in its grimly realistic portrayal of an American way of life that is rarely exposed on screen (and certainly not as convincingly as this), and in the strength of the characterisation. Critical acclaim has rightly been heaped on Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, but all the characters ooze authenticity. Just don’t go expecting any laughs. Think of a dark, nightmarish inversion of The Dukes of Hazzard: no handsome daredevil southern boys, no whimsical Waylon Jennings theme song, no mad stunts, no General Lee, no blundering Boss Hogg ... and no hope.
Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, but I won’t be holding my breath when the Oscars are announced on February 27. This is a chitlin stew film in an industry that prefers foie gras.