Friday, April 23 and Sunday, April 25, 2010 at the Somerville Theater, Somerville, MA.
WINTER’S BONE Directed & Co-Written by Debra Granik, starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey & William White.
When last we met, I noted that Film Noir was alive and kicking in Australia. After having a great time at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, I can happily report that it also looks pretty lively in the U.S. Whether as a period piece on a modest budget as THE KILLER INSIDE ME, or a low budget contemporary thriller like WINTER’S BONE, the desperate and dirty heart of Film Noir was beating in Somerville, Mass.
Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, WINTER’S BONE follows a young woman named Ree Dolly through the Ozark Mountains searching for her father, after learning he had put up the family home as collateral on a bail bond. With the county days away from forcing Ree, her younger brother and infant sister and their shut-in mother off their land, Ree is less concerned with whether her father is alive or dead than with simply locating him. We follow her through backroads and woodsheds once used for distilling moonshine but now given over to cooking methamphetamine. As the product has grown more dangerous, so have the producers, with not even blood-ties enough to keep Ree safe in her father’s world. Film noir has taken its fair share of decent hard-working characters across the tracks. This film replaces asphalt and shadows on the wrong side of town with agoraphobic wilderness.
I was unfamiliar with most of the cast of WINTER’S BONE. I wondered if some were not professional actors, so natural was this ensemble that you rarely catch them acting, only being. John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop was my first hint that these are in fact seasoned professionals. Hawkes brings to Teardrop the same meticulously observed worn soul that he and another powerhouse ensemble offered on HBO’s DEADWOOD. He and Jennifer Lawrence (Ree Dolly) are both so strong that they could have shown each other up with award-baiting grandiosity. Instead they embrace how unusual their characters’ relationship is, and explore it for all the threats, concerns and defiance that it offers.
Deborah Granik’s script asks an awful lot of her cast. As a director she was impressively able to wrangle all those emotions and themes while making the most out of every location available to her. During the Q&A after the screening, she mentioned that Ree’s home is only seen from the front and left side, so that the back and right sides could double for another character’s home. Even more economical, that house is where one of the cast members actually lives! This sort of resourcefulness not only helps keep the budget down, it also lends a reality that could never have existed if a movie with ten times the budget had cleared away some trees and built the town they needed. When a movie looks, feels, smells and sounds as real as WINTER’S BONE, it is very easy to get lost in its web.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME Directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba and Ned Beatty.
Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel THE KILLER INSIDE ME was previously filmed in 1976 with Stacey Keach as the murderous sheriff Lou Ford. Casey Affleck plays Ford in this year’s model, with Kate Hudson as his fiance Amy. Jessica Alba plays a hooker named Joyce with whom Ford falls in love after he is sent to run her out of town. The problem with Lou Ford, and a bigger problem for the women in his life, is that the has a head full of loose screws that will not allow him to accept the comforts of love for very long before he needs to destroy it.
Judging from the reactions I heard after the Somerville screening, and from what I’ve read about the audience response at Sundance earlier this year, THE KILLER INSIDE ME is on track to become the type of movie that people either love or hate. Semi-spoiler — Here is what most people hate about it: two scenes wherein Lou Ford punches, kicks and stomps a woman character, genuinely amusing himself with her suffering. These scenes prompted one of the organizers of IFFBoston to issue a warning before the film, noting that this is the first time in the Festival’s eight year history that they have made such a warning.
Here is what I loved about this movie: two scenes wherein Lou Ford commits unspeakable violence upon women are portrayed with absolutely blunt honesty. There is nothing cool about this, no cute quip delivered at the end of the scene, nothing glamorous or stylized to hint that you should be entertained by this. Let me be clear — I did not enjoy THE KILLER INSIDE ME, but in the same vein as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and IRREVERSIBLE, I respect it as well-made film. There is nothing cartoonish or over-the-top about this story. As such the violence, and the rage that precipitates it, are delivered unsparingly. This sort of violence in real life should prompt outrage. The violence of a character like Lou Ford being committed by an actor as generally likable as Casey Affleck could prompt always needed discussion of an uncomfortable issue.
Sadly, the knee-jerk reaction to scream for a bans and boycotts “to protect our children” (whose have no business seeing this movie to begin with!) will probably sidetrack any thoughtful examination. Sociopathic antiheroes have often reared their ugly heads in pulp novels by Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain and most recently James Ellroy. Film adaptations have tended to soften the rage of these characters, or even allow it to happen off screen. THE KILLER INSIDE ME is far from perfect, but it dares to go where most films won’t in allowing the story to be told from the point of view of a man the audience will truly dread.