More poverty porn from Sundance and the indie film circuit, a trend which started with David Green's "George Washington" (though some cite Harmony Korine's "Gummo"), reached its peak with "Shotgun Stories" and seems to be fizzling to a conclusion with "Winter's Bone".
Typically, all these films belong to the Southern Gothic genre, involve semi mythic story lines, Grecian family tragedies, take place in poverty stricken areas, involve rednecks or poor characters and hinge around the promise of some third act moment of violence. In other words, these films are all designed around their budgets: how to make cheap, dramatic films which take place in environments sufficiently alien to affluent white audiences and appealing to left leaning American critics. "Alternative film" has become as formulaic as the stuff it pretends not to be.
Which is not to say that "Winter's Bone" is a bad film – I'll take it over any other Hollywood mega-production currently in cinemas – but one can't escape how drearily formulaic indie cinema has become. That the only way for budding directors to guarantee critical success, let alone distribution, is to hop on board the indie conveyor belt. Now every major studio seems to be courting these films, releasing redneck flicks like "Hounddog", "Undertow", "In The Electric Mist", and "Black Snake Moan" (and similar fare like "Precious", "Ballast", "Sherrybaby", "Million Dollar Baby", "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Slumdog Millionaire").
All these films serve the same purpose as such reality TV shows as "Wife Swap" or "How Clean Is Your House", the horrified bourgeois gazing at the undisciplined classes, the films fetishizing hick culture, their cameras dwelling on rust, junk, derelict vehicles, poor kids, catatonic women, grime, poverty and destitution in a world populated by bearded, gun toting mountain men. Every year, Sundance serves up the same thing.
The irony is, all these "Southern Gothic indie films" have their roots in those affluence-centric films of the 90s ("The Ice Storm", "American Beauty" and more recently "Revolutionary Road" and "Little Children"). Indie cinema used to be all about rich people moping about, then killing somebody. Now it's the same trend: only with supremely poor people instead (examining what caused this shift will take an essay in itself).
But unlike the films of the British and French new wave or the Italian neorealist movement, no attempt is ever made to explore the worlds or social context of these poor characters. This is British "kitchen sink" drama of the 60s stripped of everything but the aesthetics of grime. Critics bought this when Green's grungy "George Washington" was released, but time – and Green's subsequent output, which demonstrated him to be completely without a world-view – has revealed the entire genre to be vapid. This is grime as an aesthetic choice and story as nothing but a skeleton upon which to hang the filth. Wow them with poverty porn and then cash in, a career trajectory which Green and every successful modern indie director exemplifies (Green's last film was "Pineapple Express").
In terms of plot, "Winter's Bone" is a Southern Gothic thriller which revolves around 17 year old Ree Dolly's search for her methamphetamine-cooking father, Jessup. Jessup has disappeared, failing to show up for a court case, and so unless Ree finds him, the family home will be repossessed.
Ree thus becomes a private investigator of sorts, bouncing from location to location, all in the search of her father. She confronts family members and inbred cousins, who live scattered amongst barns and cabins in the hills. We're treated to banjos, gutted squirrels, dilapidated homes, leaking pipes and an assortment of hicks, Ree given the cold shoulder by most. "Don't you have any men folk to do this?" one of them asks. "No," comes Ree's curt reply.
At its best, "Winter's Bones" is the slick love child of "Deliverance" (why are hillbillies always shown to be clannish, violent, territorial and vengeful people?) and "Little Red Riding Hood", a coming of age fairy tale in which little Ree navigates the evil forest all on her lonesome, bravely doing what must be done to keep her family together (her mom is catatonic and she has 2 little siblings). There exists also a slight feminist undercurrent: women are partially to blame, director Debra Granik says, for not challenging the status quo.
At its worst, however, "Winter's Bone" is as mechanical, cold, hollow and cynically calculated as a summer blockbuster, Sundance and the indie circuit churning out - or aggressively marketing - the same "prestige fare" for the past 9 years. And like all these films, it owes its style entirely to David Green.
Green's first feature was made after Terrence Malick (a fellow Texan) released "The Thin Red Line", a film which Green cites as a huge influence on his own aesthetic style. When Green made "George Washington", he opened the door for virtually every Southern Gothic director copying this "new Terrence Malick" style and applying it to their own low budget thrillers. What is this "new Malick" style? It's essentially Malick's usual aesthetic (fluid shots, ethereal music, elliptical, non-linear editing etc), only now shots of nature are replaced with rusty, dilapidated environments whilst moody shots of contemplative characters are replaced with brooding hillbillies, poor people, kids and idiots. Essentially, Malick's highbrow style added instant "street cred" to both low budget indie flicks, and a sub-genre that was getting increasingly stupid and exploitative.
7.9/10 - Why is Bree an anomaly in her own environment? Given her circumstances and upbringing, why is she a figure of such grace, beauty, integrity and self-sufficiency? While the best noirs use the genre to paint a picture of the society in which they take place, this film makes no attempt to flesh Bree, or any character, out. Instead, Bree functions solely as an audience surrogate, taking us window shopping through a grotesque carnival of freaks and oddballs. We stare, they menace us from their cages, and we go on home.
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