November 12, 2010
Despite the incessant output of new releases, a film that profoundly pierces is a true rarity. Occasionally something so remarkable comes along and with it, at least for me, comes the gentle reminder as to why I continually choose to study film over other theoretically and philosophically contemplative mediums, in the first instance: because the experience can be utterly sublime. Writer/director Debra Granik’s second feature film Winter’s Bone (2010) is one such film; sublime in the true Kantian sense of the word and as close to contemporary cinematic perfection as I can possibly imagine.
Ree Dolly is only seventeen but with her father officially “missing” and her mother near catatonic, she quickly becomes head of the household and the only hope her younger brother and sister have for survival. Tired, down-trodden and understandably pissed, Ree learns that her father’s disappearance could cost them their family home if he doesn’t show for trial in a mere matter of days. Forced to assume responsibility for her entire family and their situation Ree sets about tracking her father down, or, in his absence, anyone who can help her to prove to the authorities that he can’t show for trial because he’s dead and buried.
Ree’s quest to find her absent father bears both Freudian and religious connotations. With the paternal structure breaking down and without a maternal figure to look to for help the only official avenue available to Ree is the Law – who she outright refuses – and, failing that, her “community”, which itself is run by a iron fist form of paternal Law. Denying all forms of social and political authority, Ree stands up to everyone with a sort of blind faith that propels her in her quest to find her maker. The only way for Ree to save her family is through an act of near martyrdom, proving her faith in her Father’s death and existence is not misguided; that he must have been murdered because he wouldn’t abandon them in their time of need. An incredibly beautiful sentiment that is simultaneously hopeful and despondent, Ree’s fears push her faith to its limits as she exclaims, “He ain’t anywhere.”
In a final act of baptism gone awry Ree must trust in her enemies that they will lead her to her Father, a moment that reveals terrifying truth and beauty in the most visually explicable demonstration of the Kantian sublime I have ever seen onscreen.
Finishing with the song “In The Palm of His Hand” performed by Dirt Road Delight, the film’s final words, “May He lead you to salvation/Whatever he has against you/May He blaze a path to glory/To the promised land” resonate wonderfully with our protagonist’s hardship and suffering on her arduous journey to prove God exists. The whole film reads like a exemplary literary classic, complete with the rich symbolism of fire and ice. The layers are so well established that instead of subtle complication the whole film is propelled by an internal logic that is crisp, cohesive and complete.
A more perfectly paced dramatic thriller I cannot recall; every detail right down to the sound of leaves crushing underfoot is impeccably executed, the tension in absolutely every scene heart-racingly palpable. The performances are amongst the most naturalistic and believable to be found: not so much as a bit-parter failing to sustain the necessary balance of energy and reserve. Each shot is beautifully composed and the environment so well captured that the Ozark woods themselves play a character in the film; dark and foreboding. The combination of these elements create a most incredible and piercing tonal quality which is ultimately the greatest of Granik’s many achievements. And of course the story itself is intense, gripping and so brilliantly layered that one constantly needs to remind oneself to exhale and catch breath.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.