Winter's Bone: A-
The relevance of setting cannot be underestimated. It personifies the belief "Show, don't tell," and it allows the viewer to either slip into a picture's reality, or disengage from it due to its mishandling at the hands of the director and/or writer. Too many filmmakers these days take too little time not only in not establishing a setting, but neither in allowing the setting to organically define the story that will be told. Filmmakers are too busy dumping viewers into the middle of plot complexities/inanities or flinging shitty special effects at viewers and calling it entertainment or strangling us with quirky (read: inauthentic) characterizations, all to disguise the simple fact the emperor has no clothes. What happened to stories defined by their environments?
Two new films address this issue to different degrees of success. Inception, the highly anticipated follow-up to The Dark Knight by writer/director Christopher Nolan, and Winter's Bone, the recent Sundance prizewinner. To be blunt and succinct, Winter's Bone is the superior film, and the manner in which it achieves its superiority is through its environmental richness. The images (dilapidated homes haunted by hard-bitten lifers, barren woods breathing bitter cold, yards swollen and shrunken from neglect/poverty) propel the story, which involves a 17-year old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) as she searches for her father, who has disappeared after posting bail. The problem (besides the obvious): he bonded over the house and its land where his children and wife live in order to vanish. So Ree embarks on a journey to find her father before the law takes ownership of the dwelling she, her younger brother and sister, and mother need to survive.
Winter's Bone is nothing new. However, the film is a wonderful example of (regional) film making that oozes environmental authenticity to achieve a level of malevolent suspense that puts most big-budget pictures to shame. As I watched Ree encounter a series of unsavory characters in the backwards of the Ozarks (some family members, others neighbors who have dug themselves in like ticks into the hardscrabble hillsides), the film took on an aura of menace and violence due to the poverty of the region and the customs learned through such brutal conditioning. This setting establishes a mood that provokes genuine discomfort during the various altercations between individuals and it breeds a stolid concern for our heroine; this is a character worth rooting for even though you know the success you want her to find will only provide a glimmer of hope in what appears to be a hell of a home life. This is, after all, a girl raising two younger siblings and a near catatonic mother on no money. Ree hopes to join the army, not as a means of escape, but as a means by which she'll earn some income; despite the enormity of her surroundings, Ree demonstrates a proud, fierce protection of the world which she inhabits.
Having taught in inner-city communities for several years, I identified with many of the characteristics inherent in Ree's community: the native distrust of outsiders and the law (one and the same), the fanatical unwillingness to snitch, the unhinged devotion to blood ties no matter the circumstances. These character traits plus the visual verisimilitude (fingernails caked with dirt, hollowed-out cars beached on lawns, squirrels vividly skinned for food) are key ingredients that further refine and enhance the setting so much so that you begin to realize despite the surface level superiority of the film's suspense mechanisms, the movie really uses genre to allow its viewers to peruse a forgotten America, an America that has neglected and discarded many of its own, young and old. I was reminded of the book The Working Poor; you're shocked (but shouldn't be) that such extreme conditions exist within a nation and without regard to ethnic backgrounds. Author David Shipler writes, "for practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause (p.11)." This is true of the circumstances encountered by Ree. Many of the characters in this film all look ten years older than their age, and while it's often easy to pity or caricature such individuals, the makers of Winter's Bone (director/writer Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini) simply allow their characters to demonstrate how they find ways around the fences that have been created to keep them in one environment and out of others: hunting for food, shouldering the burden when others cannot (Ree's neighbors offer to raise her brother), bartering for favors, and, in this film, cooking methamphetamine, the drug of choice. By the end of the film, you've come to develop an odd, but sincere, empathy and respect for many of the characters as they attempt to survive living within their ravaged, barren, apocalyptic Americana. And a fierce bitterness that such a setting flourishes within this country.
Inception's sense of place hinges around its central construct: the world of dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams, and . . . oh, I could go on, but I'd be wasting words on something for which words do not do justice. Remember what I said about showing and not telling earlier in this article? Well, Inception is a film that does a lot of both (paging Ellen Page's character!). And neither works very well to reinforce the other, to provide ballast for a stronger film. If anything, I could have seen this film with only a musical score and enjoyed it just as much. It's a series of set pieces, some worth our admiration, some not. Paris folds on top of itself so that cars drive upside down; a locomotive smashes through a series of cars on a busy street; characters float in zero gravity through hotel hallways while engaging in a fight to the death; and so on. At times, the film feels the weight of its estimated 160 million budget and bench presses it numerous times, each thrust provoking awe at the ephemeral beauty Nolan produces (the fight sequence in the hotel hallway stands out-it's lucid, balletic, and riffs on, without merely copying, Inception's forebearers); other times, the film's budget appears to crush any sense of ingenuity, such as the sequence in the wintry Alps that appears cheap, uninspired, and no better than a cheesy 80s action flick. One true appreciation I have for Nolan is his lack of reliance on lowest common denominator CGI. Inception's images never really feel like they were created on a computer unlike so many other big-budget films. Unfortunately, other images such as many of the chase scenes are frantically chopped, so ferociously demolished, they appear to be outtakes from a Tony Scott film. So my respect remains tempered with a bit of disappointment.
Which leads to the setting in Inception, a world of dreamscapes that does not feel organic at all, which for a film about various levels of dreaming seems a little bit astonishing. These dreams don't feel like dreams; they feel like plot devices meant to "Wow" an audience that is either too easily impressed or has forgotten the film's precursors (most recently, films like Dark City, The Matrix, and many others). I'm sure people will say the films shouldn't feel like actual dreams because they are created by the characters within the film knows as "architects," but I still felt very little lack of wonder, no sense of the possibility that anything can happen. And isn't that cinema as metaphor? That the subjective filmmaking world (is there really any other kind?) can create and manipulate stories and worlds filled with an abundance of imagination where audience members collectively flock for a variety of reasons? Unfortunately during Inception, most of the time I felt a mild unpleasantness at Nolan's artful manipulation of us as viewers; he's a con man playing a shell game (albeit a very skilled one), and I don't get the sense that his tropes serve any greater function other than to hoodwink his viewers. Even the artificially amazing images are not that amazing.
Thinking back, all of this doesn't come as much of a surprise since films like Memento and The Prestige dealt in subterfuge (The Dark Knight, his most straightforward film, remains his most potent since it shed itself of trying to deceive it's audience and instead focused on theme, character, and fucking awesome set pieces). From my perspective, Nolan has quietly become the next M. Night Shyamalan. Everything is a con, and everything leads to a final "Holy Shit!" moment that is meant to supposedly stun the audience and make you rethink everything you've just watched. But Inception never did that for me. It's world of dreams was mildly intriguing, but I never was on the edge of my seat wondering what he would think of next probably because I didn't care about the setting the way I did in Winter's Bone. When you know the people can't really die since they're in a dream world, it takes away some of the suspense. And DiCaprio's backstory with regard to his wife left me emotionally cold; I never cared about their marriage, and I never truly believed Nolan did either. In this case, the setting overwhelmed the emotional nuances and the intricate, intimate details that define a marriage; why should I give a fuck about the ending and what really happened when Nolan is more enthralled with the landscape around the husband and wife?
I'm making it seem like I disliked the film more than I did. I appreciated it to a degree. It's simply that I can't bear to spend too much time thinking or caring about about Nolan's hollow house of cards when Winter's Bone's contextual milieu enlightened and enthralled rather than simply exasperated.
End Note: Inception is more a film you'd like to see on the big screen; it's vast visual effects will seem manicured on television, while Winter's Bone's sense of hermetic, saranwrapped claustrophobia will play well in the movie theater or television.