27 November, 2010

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

So here's the thing.

It seems to me to be pretty unusual to see a film or TV series these days that has a strong sense of place. Often, the difference between a film set in New York or Los Angeles may be an establishing skyline, and that's about it. It's a situation that certainly isn't helped by the common approach of filming in one place to fake another. Indeed, sometimes it almost seems as though the filmmakers are lucky to be filming in the same country as the film is set. Is there a major city in America that hasn't been played by Vancouver? How many times have Eastern European forests been called on to stand in for the country regions of the States? And often this all happens for a very understandable reason: money. Show business is, after all, a business, and if the filmmakers can save some millions of dollars by shooting a film somewhere other than where the story actually takes place, why not?

But the problem with that is that there seems to be something lost when you film somewhere else. Filmmaking is all fakery and acting, I'm not unaware of this, and it's certainly possible and reasonable to expect to be able to fake a location. But different cities, areas, regions, have different cultures. Filmmakers may gain a surface level idea about these differences in a short research trip, but when they go off somewhere else to film, you often end up with generic city, generic region, perhaps with a few obvious touches thrown in to signify the setting but without any sense of authenticity. But when you're filming in the area being presented, when you're spending weeks and months surrounded by the residents, filming in the house of someone exactly like your characters, casting locals in various roles, something about the representation of that area becomes real. It's difficult to define the difference exactly - it's often just richer in presenting the nuances and the sense of an area.

But even apart from the filming location, it sometimes seems as though filmmakers may almost be afraid of stories that are too location-specific. It's as though they're afraid to make a movie that is absolutely pinned to a certain location for fear of losing some universality. I sometimes wonder whether that plays a part in explaining why it often seems as though the location was chosen as an afterthought, a "we have to set it somewhere, so let's set it here" decision, rather than being a significant character in the story being told. And it's a position I don't understand. Specificity is not something to be afraid of. Rather, by presenting stories that are true to a place and exploring how different people behave in this environment and these types of circumstances, it gives a greater portrait of our world and who we are in it.

Winter's Bone (see the trailer here) is absolutely inseparable from its setting, and indeed is really about its setting. The film is set in (and was filmed in) the Ozarks, a region which was once notorious for moonshine, but these days has transitioned into being a centre for methamphetamine production. Ree Dolly, an impoverished 17-year-old girl raising her two younger siblings because her non-functional mother cannot, learns that her missing meth-cook father has put up the family home as part of his bail bond, and unless he turns up in the next week, the family will be evicted. So Ree goes off in search of her father, be he alive or dead, to try and save her family from being thrown out onto the dirt track that functions as a street.

There's a scene early in the film that in many ways summarises who Ree is as a character. Starving, her two siblings look longingly at deer carcasses that sit curing outside their neighbours' house, and suggest that they could go and ask the neighbours for some food. But even though you can see her own desperate hunger, Ree angrily rejects the suggestion, exclaiming "Never ask for what ought to be offered." Accepting a gift is fine, and asking for a big favour is okay if absolutely necessary, but asking for some small act of charity is intolerable. This is someone who doesn't have much, but who does have her pride, and who would fight to preserve what little she does have. In the main role, Jennifer Lawrence is utterly captivating. So much of her performance is carried in her eyes - Ree is a girl who has learned to be strong despite whatever life throws at her, and so as she moves further out of her depth, she continues to act strong and confident, and it's only through her eyes that we glimpse her fear, her exhaustion, or just how overwhelmed she is. Lawrence's ability to communicate a powerful performance with such subtlety is impressive, especially from someone whose previous career highlight was playing the daughter in a forgotten family sitcom, and one can only hope she receives some much-deserved awards recognition.

The self-sufficiency of Ree seems to be largely representative of the entire region. This is a film that could so easily fall into some awful clich├ęd portrayal of hillbilly life, but instead presents a living, astonishing, convincing world. There are moments where it almost feels like we're watching a film set 100, even 200 years ago, and it staggers the mind to think that in the United States there are entire communities of people that live like this. And in this society, at times almost unrecognisable as part of the modern world, the isolation and lure of easy money, as well the temptation of escape, make the growth in methamphetamine production and the rise of a protective culture around that seems inevitable. This is the story of an enclosed world where self-sufficiency is prized and the ability to protect your own interests from those who would threaten them is essential, creating a community where even your own family members are viewed with suspicion. So when Ree starts asking questions, everyone closes rank. These are people who don't want questions asked about where Jessup Dolly is, and even a 17-year-old looking for her father is a threat. She can't even rely on family and friend relationships for help - her recently-married best friend can offer no assistance, her uncle just tries to discourage her from investigating, and most of the remaining extended-family were in some way involved in whatever is going on.

To a large degree, the film is about the impact that methamphetamine has had on this isolated community, and it's handled impressively well. The film definitely has something to say about the effect of the drug in this world, and it's certainly not subtle in saying it, but yet it never once comes across as preachy. That's largely because the film is so rooted in character. The central character is someone who has grown up in the culture of drug production, who has seen the problems inflicted on those around by drugs and has chosen to avoid them. Any drug users are presented sympathetically and with realism, and even where people are actively involved in production, the situation that would lead them to that position is shown honestly. We can understand how this problem became so prevalent, even as the film argues that this needs to stop and points to the destructive influence that the drug is having on what should be a tight-knit community.

One of the things I love about this film is the fact that it had the potential to so easily turn into Precious-style misery porn. An impoverished girl, struggling to raise younger children, trying to survive in a harsh and hostile world - this could so easily turn into a film where the audience is expected to look at the film and tut-tut in amazement that someone would live like that. But it's not like that, and it's not angling for that reaction. When the film ends on a hopeful note, we can accept it because we've spent the entire movie with Ree Dolly - we've seen her resourcefulness, her intelligence, her determination, her bravery, and so we know we don't need to worry about her because she will be able to cope with anything that comes. This isn't Precious, where we're supposed to be hopeful just because the film is yelling "this is a happy ending and she's going to be okay, regardless of the actual evidence in the film;" this is a natural and honest moment of happiness for someone who we can genuinely believe will be okay because the film shows us that she'll be okay.

I worry that I'm making the film seem like some great exercise as a character piece or in portraying a community - something that may be worthy but ultimately dull. And it's not. Certainly, these are the areas where the film is strongest, but it's all an integral part of a genuinely suspenseful, well-made, and entertaining story. The film is basically a traditional noir-esque detective story, but with a 17-year-old girl as the detective. There are moments where Ree seems in genuine peril, relying solely on her own ingenuity and determination to avoid death. And in those moments, there is real tension and suspense. Director and co-screenwriter Debra Granik (working from a novel by Ozarks native Daniel Woodrell) has a masterful control on the narrative flow of the story, easing you into the story, then carefully building the tension until it becomes unbearable. By the time the film reaches its climax - with Ree going on an expedition to the middle of nowhere with several threatening figures to find a scene that is truly gruesome - you could feel your body completely tensed in fear for the possible outcomes. And yet, given that it's focused around a central mystery, the film does a really great job in almost avoiding that mystery - in one of the last scenes in the film, several characters draw the audience's attention to the fact that the question that would be the main point in any other film is left unanswered here. By the end of the film, we know enough to put together a vague picture of what happened and why, but key questions are unanswered. And yet the film doesn't leave the audience dissatisfied, largely because they're not questions that Ree is really all that concerned about. It's an unusual but fine thriller; one that has a lot on its mind, but that never forgets that its primary purpose is to entertain. I've watched it twice now (once at the film festival, once on general release), I'm picked up a copy of the book, and I'm looking forward to owning my own copy of the film. It's certainly not a typical thriller - the film has a gentle, cool, quiet tone that reflects this world in the middle of nowhere, and it comes across as so honest and realistic that it becomes all too believable, and is all the more horrifying for its realism - but it is absolutely beautiful and involving. I love this film.

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And a small side-note here: When, following its New Zealand release, I managed to see Winter's Bone for the second time, I walked into the cinema very excited to see this great film again. My excitement quickly died when the octogenarian couple sitting a couple of rows back and six or so seats along started talking. Often it was just a loud noticeable murmur, but not infrequently it would turn into audible comments: "Look, they're going to play the banjo;" "Where is this?" "I don't know, Missouri, maybe;" "Look, it's little chicks" "Yes, aren't they young" "And so cute." And this carried on through the ENTIRE film. And the fact that they were such a distance away from me, and yet I could hear them, really shows just how obnoxiously loud they actually were. Now, I realise they were old, but that is no justification for what they did. The problem is amplified by the nature of the film - it's often a very quiet film, which made their talking even more noticeable, and meant that their comments interrupted the calm still tone that the film was working so hard to establish. In fact, it ruined the filmgoing experience for me because I found I wasn't watching the film so much as bracing myself for their next comment, and then mentally erupting with every kind of profanity when they did say something. I actually stalked them out of the cinema, following them up the street (which, since they were 80 years old, took them a looooooooooong time to walk), trying to summon up the courage to tell them to SHUT THE HELL UP NEXT TIME. But I decided not to. The film was over, so it was too late to save my screening from be ruined. And given what I had imagined calling them during the film and how angry I still was, I was worried I might say something I would regret. I thought about the possibility that it might spare future audiences from their constant chatter, but then I realised that they're probably set in their selfish ways and one guy approaching them in the street isn't going to change anything. Besides, does it really matter that I didn't say anything to them? It's not like I'll be saving that many future audiences - they're old, and while they may ruin a few more movies for a few more audiences, the truth is they're going to die soon, and then they won't be able to ruin any more films. And that's the important thing.