Ozark Gothic

Photo: Sebastian Mlynarski/Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

There are moments in the harshly beautiful Winter’s Bone in which the characters are so deeply, unfathomably mean in response to a 17-year-old girl’s pleas to find her father (or at least his body) that we search their faces for a glimmer of sympathy, kinship—anything human. Some filmmakers (say, Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier) would settle for their masks of indifference or malevolence, because that would clinch the case, Q.E.D., that these clannish Ozark hill folk were born to, or just worn down to, pure evil. And the heroine, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), would seem like Little Red Riding Hood discovering that Grandma is in league with the wolf, and give us reason to root for her to make the bad guys pay. But Ree won’t stop trying to appeal to something decent in her people, many of whose last names are also “Dolly,” who maybe know what happened to her dad and have buried that knowledge in ground already overfilled with skeletons. This director, Debra Granik, doesn’t let the actors go dead: There is movement, barely perceptible, under the surface. Some vein of compassion, however thin, must be down there. Somewhere.

Granik and Anne Rosellini based their screenplay very closely on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, who lives in the Ozarks and should be better known. What people say about Cormac McCarthy (“expands the territory of American fiction!” etc.) goes double for him. Possibly more. At this point, McCarthy has virtually given up hope (he had little to begin with) for a decency unmoored from people’s instinct for survival. Woodrell’s prose, stark as it is, carries traces of Mark Twain’s sly wit and wonder. In the Welsh author John Williams’s Back to the Badlands (in which he hits the road to visit the real-life settings of contemporary crime writers’ work), Woodrell drives through a town called Collinsville, “a place you’d be hard pressed to find on any map.” Later he says, “These are people so alienated from American culture that it’s like a parallel universe.” Even Woodrell keeps his distance from the scariest and most shrouded of them, and so would Ree Dolly if she weren’t compelled by the threat of homelessness to journey into the woods and up those barren hills in search of answers.

From the opening shots of Winter’s Bone—vivacious children on a trampoline in a landscape denuded of life, while a woman sings (unaccompanied) an Ozark lullaby—Granik creates a lyrical tension between determination and despair. When a cop drives up to say that Ree’s father, arrested for cooking crystal meth, has apparently jumped bail, and that he used the family’s house for collateral, Ree says she’ll find him; and when the policeman says that’s unlikely, she responds, “I said, I will find him.” Her mother is mentally ill and near catatonic, and Ree takes care of her young brother and sister. They’re barely surviving, even if they manage to keep the house. (While she guts a squirrel, her brother asks if they’ll eat the intestines. “Not yet.”) After telling her siblings never to beg, never to ask for what ought to be given, she sets out to ask for what ought to be given, and is willing to beg if she has to. And she has to, in every charged encounter, beginning with her best friend (Lauren Sweetser) and then her father’s brother, Teardrop (the febrile John Hawkes), who tells her if she goes much further she’s liable to get “et by hogs or wishing you were.” Warned off, shunned, beaten, Ree keeps mustering the will to get back on her feet.

Watching the hauntingly self-contained Jennifer Lawrence, my eyes sometimes strayed to the way she fingered her simple woolen cap, careful not to let it fall—a poor thing, but her own. (I felt as if I could smell the cold in it.) Lawrence and Granik don’t overplay the pathos. They don’t look for moments to show Ree’s vulnerability—because Ree can’t afford to show her vulnerability, even to herself, any more than she can drop that woolen cap. (Bloodied and barely conscious, she tells her friend to make sure her siblings do their homework.) Only once does she go soft, when she sits beside her mother: “Mom, look at me. Can you please help me? This one time? Please help me this one time. I don’t know what to do … ” But even as these words pour out of her, you can see in her eyes that she doesn’t expect an answer.

Despite winning the big prize at Sundance, Winter’s Bone isn’t what we used to call indie “deadbeat regionalism”: Beneath its hardscrabble plainness is an odyssey, mythic in its intensity, that builds to a climax not with bad men but the aging and haggard women who keep this underworld kingdom impregnable. The leader, the wife of Thump Milton, is Merab, and as she’s played by Dale Dickey it’s impossible to take her full measure. Motherliness and murderousness have somehow melted together; you can’t spot the line between free will and loyalty to her (male-driven) clan. I think you could watch this remarkable performance a hundred times and never get to the bottom of it. Her final scene with Ree, a midnight boat ride into the marshes, is what bad dreams are made of; the silent scream to which it builds can be felt in your bones—the purest catharsis imaginable.

For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer, and Winter’s Bone is the year’s most stirring film.

How can anyone watch Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s car-crash-compelling Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and not be conflicted about its subject, by turns desperately funny and unfunnily desperate? I cringed when it opened on the 75-year-old comedian as she made up her already-plasticized features, then entered a small, cruddy-looking club and bemoaning (to the audience!) that she’s ended up there after 40 years in showbiz. But then she launched into a wildly profane put-down of her own red-carpet-awards shtick, and I was, I swear, ready to be her slave. Her patter onstage is surreal; it’s like falling into a vortex of Jewish female self-affirming self-hatred. All these years of seeing her on TV (plus an eye-opening profile in this magazine two weeks ago) and I never knew she worked this blue, that she had this much Lenny Bruce in her. Then the filmmakers follow her offstage and she holds up her mostly empty calendar, with so much white she says she has to put on sunglasses before she opens it, and it’s clear that without the bookings, she’s on the brink of nonexistence. And this is with two terrific filmmakers training their cameras on her. Imagine her by herself.

There is no self. Did you see pictures of the sinkhole in Guatemala? That’s the size of the hole that can never be filled, no matter how much collagen she pours into it. She is entirely other-directed. She rehearses an autobiographical play in London, and all she can talk about is the reviews, the reviews—the reviews that will give her life or kill her. I’m hesitant to review her now; I don’t want that much power. But the movie is so potent. I was a white-knuckle mess over whether she’d get back on top. Her only daughter, Melissa, says she had a sibling: “the career.” That’s what it was called: the career. When Joan’s husband failed the career (the Fox late-night show he produced bombed), he killed himself. The career has been on life-support. She says she hates when young female comics say, “ ‘You opened the doors’: Go fuck yourself. I still open the doors.”

Stern and Sundberg omit one huge motif: her infamous, appalling, often hilarious Elizabeth Taylor fat-disparaging phase. She couldn’t resist going after someone who’d once set a standard of beauty that Rivers could never begin to meet—and who behaved with un-Jewish childlike passivity as the pounds accumulated. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly exhilarating, thoroughly depressing portrait of the agony and ecstasy of celebrity. Watch that calendar fill up.

Once in a while a comedy comes along in which you’re not sure, for a long time, that it actually is a comedy. But then the details begin to accumulate, the characters take hold, you lock into the director’s rhythms, and, voilà, you surprise yourself by how hard you’re laughing. That’s what happens in Agnès Jaoui’s Let It Rain, the story of a hotel clerk (brilliant little Jamel Debbouze) and an insecure blowhard failed reporter (Jaoui’s co-writer, Jean-Pierre Bacri) who team up to make a documentary about a “strong woman” politician, played by Jaoui, who has alienated almost everyone in her life with her ambition—especially her redheaded sister (Pascale Arbillot), who’s embroiled in an affair with the dimwit journalist. It takes a half-hour to sort these and other characters out before their various agendas begin to collide, the rain comes, and you see the tragedy of everyone’s lives—until, this being a comedy, the sun comes back out and the sadness ebbs. This wistful little film is at just the right temperature.

Although she isn’t known for star-driven films, Winter’s Bone’s Debra Granik has an eye for rising talent. When her previous movie, Down to the Bone, premiered at Sundance in 2004, it made an instant critical darling of the then-unglamorous Vera Farmiga, who this year became an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air. This time out, it’s Jennifer Lawrence, the 19-year-old Kentuckian at the center of Winter’s Bone. Watch for her again in Jodie Foster’s oddball comedy The Beaver, due out in the fall.

Winter’s Bone
Roadside Attractions. R.

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work
IFC Films. R.

Let It Rain
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Ozark Gothic