Winter’s Bone was a big favorite at Sundance last year, and has done well at numerous independent film festivals since then, but it failed to hit the spot at the Oscars. This probably says more about the nature of the Academy Awards than it does about the film, which features some brilliant performances from little-known actors and a style that spans both art house noir and mainstream thriller.
The story of Winter’s Bone is deceptively simple, and the setting initially does not promise much.
Social realism from the backwoods of Missouri’s Ozark mountains, with hard scrabble families eking out a living from unpromising soil, subsidized by a culture of crime — mainly the cooking up of methamphetamine in isolated locations of a highland region — could easily prove a real downer.
Photo courtesy of CatchPlay
The setting in the depth of the Missouri winter brings to mind the Canadian film Frozen River, which was given a small release in Taipei in June last year. The cold, and chilly fingers of death, linger over people already living on the outer periphery of normal life. Winter’s Bone achieves the impressive feat of internalizing this harsh environment and making it part of the people who populate this story.
The heart and soul of Winter’s Bone is 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, who is spellbinding to watch as Ree, a teenager charged with the care of two young siblings after her father jumps bail and her mother has tuned out from all her children’s needs (whether from psychiatric or drug-related reasons is never made clear, though Ree’s antipathy to the drugs widely available in her community suggests the latter). The ramshackle house in which she lives and some nearby land are her only financial assets, but these have been placed as bond for her father’s bail. Ree’s father has failed to turn up, and unless she can bring him back, or prove that he’s dead, she’ll be without a roof over her head.
It is more than probable that quite a large number of people living in her immediate area, many of whom Ree is tangentially related, know something about what happened to her father, Jessup. We are introduced to Jessup though hearsay and rumors, none of which seems to make him a particularly attractive character, but this does not in the least reduce his importance to Ree, who needs to find him in order to survive. She does not pretend to have any particular love for her father, and the best thing she can think to say about him is that he “never cooked a bad batch” of meth.
Photo courtesy of CatchPlay
Her relatives are unwilling to talk, and this reluctance is backed up with force. For them, it is simply a matter of managing family affairs, and killing an intransigent member of the clan may be unpleasant and regrettable, but needs must, and these are not the sort of people to baulk at a bit of blood. Fortunately for Ree, blood ties also matter, and she finds an unlikely ally in her Uncle Teardrop, an unstable and violent man who is probably as much a liability as a friend. John Hawkes, who plays the role, manages to embody shocking violence and intense vulnerability without recourse to sentimentality. For all the assistance he gives Ree in her quest, he never allows himself to be sympathetic, and he walks off the screen in the final scene of the film on a quest that can only lead to more violence. As brilliant as Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky Eklund was in The Fighter, Hawkes’ has an absence of sentiment that makes him even more compelling, more dangerous, and infinitely less likable.
Another performance that deserves special praise is from Dale Dickey, who plays Merab, a matriarch scared by the violent world in which she lives. She warns Ree what retribution she might face if she keeps asking unwanted questions, and does not hesitate to deal out that retribution when her warnings aren’t heeded.
There is a hard edge to Winter’s Bone that makes Ree and her surroundings believable, even in the film’s moments of almost Gothic absurdity. Some of the drug-dealing minors who populate the story are so weird they have to be real (many locals were used as extras).
Ree exists in a system that encompasses extremes of overblown machismo, matter-of-fact violence, and a medieval code of honor that locks people into silence or forces them to exact bloody vengeance. And there seems to be no way out. Fortunately, director Debra Granik does not try to create one.
Winter’s Bone to some extent is a coming of age story, and Ree’s quest for her father makes a woman of her, one who can see the violent logic of her community and who can also accept it (as if she really had any other choice). In Winter’s Bone, growing up is not about becoming free, but about understanding the limits of freedom. It’s not a happy conclusion, but one that is a remarkably potent antidote to the poles of moral vacuity or moral certainty that are usually represented in mainstream cinema.
Jennifer Lawrence (Ree), John Hawkes (Teardrop), Isaiah Stone (Sonny),
Ashlee Thompson (Ashlee), Shelley Waggener (Sonya), Garret Dillahunt (Sheriff Baskin), William White (Blond Milton), Dale Dickey (Merab)
When Auntie Su (蘇) was evicted from her apartment last Monday, locals were so overjoyed that they sent thank you wreaths to the Tainan Police Department. “Justice has been served.” “Punish villains and eradicate evil,” read some of the notes. “Thank you, hardworking police for bringing peace and quiet back to Tainan!” a neighbor posted on Facebook. Auntie Su is a notorious “informer demon” (檢舉魔人), someone who is known to excessively report violations either for reward money or — depending which side you’re on — to serve as a justice warrior or a nosy annoyance. Usually they are called “professional”
Home to some 400 galleries and an estimated 8,000 artists, Berlin has long aspired to be what its politicians call the cultural capital of Europe. Yet in the coming year, thousands of works by artists including Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman and Gerhard Richter are set to vanish from its galleries, as the city debates what lengths it should go to protect art collectors from the sharp edge of a property boom. Last month, the Hamburger Bahnhof museum for contemporary art announced that Switzerland-based Friedrich Christian Flick would withdraw his collection of 2,500 modern artworks and take them back to Zurich
In Taiwan’s foothills, suspension bridges — or the remnants of them — are almost as commonplace as temples. “Suspension bridge” is a direct translation of the Chinese-language term (吊橋, diaoqiao), but it’s a little misleading. These spans aren’t huge pieces of infrastructure. The larger ones are just wide enough for the little trucks used by farmers. Others are suitable for two-wheelers and wheelbarrows. If one end is higher than the other, they may incorporate steps, like the recently-inaugurated, pedestrians-only Shuanglong Rainbow Suspension Bridge (雙龍七彩吊橋) in Nantou County. Because torrential rains hammer Taiwan during the hot season, the landscape is scarred by
With his sugarcane juice stall at Monga Nightmarket (艋舺夜市) floundering due to COVID-19, things took a turn for the worse for Lin Chih-hang (林志航) when he was furloughed from a part-time job. The crowds are trickling back to this nightmarket in Taipei’s Wanhua District (萬華), but Lin is now so busy that he has hired a friend to run his stall. As the sole driver of the night market’s delivery service, established on April 12, Lin takes on an average of 20 orders on weeknights and over 60 on weekends, with his father helping out when he is too busy.