I Am Winter’s Knight (Weekly Links)

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Winter’s Bone. (Link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

For a movie rich with atmosphere and local color, “Winter’s Bone” also has a laser-like hold of plot: this indie picture moves forward with the resolute tread of a tracking dog.

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, “Winter’s Bone” is set in the Missouri Ozarks, in a community of isolated homesteads that might be operating in the 1890s or 1920s, if it weren’t for the occasional modern gadget or vehicle. 17-year-old Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) sets out to find her wayward father, who has vanished somewhere in the thick, smoky woods that cover the countryside. He’s put up the family farm—a shack and a few acres of property—as his bail bond, which means Ree and her two younger siblings will be thrown off the land if he doesn’t turn up.

Unfortunately, the people who might know the father’s whereabouts are none too keen on revealing anything; almost everybody seems to be mixed up in various illegalities, most of which have to do with the isolated meth labs that have taken the place of the moonshine stills of yore. Worse, the folk around here live according to an extra-legal code that appears to be at least 200 years old, a code that revolves around loyalty, blood relations, and silence.

What’s most arresting about “Winter’s Bone” is the absolute lock-jawed determination of its heroine, who will suffer any sort of punishment, including emotional and physical, in order to answer the question of her father’s fate. Jennifer Lawrence, who gave a thoughtful performance in “Burning Plain,” completely gives herself over to the role. The other actors are variously tender and terrifying–and in the form of Ree’s uncle, a fearsome man incongruously known as Teardrop, both tender and terrifying. In the role, John Hawkes (“Deadwood”) gives one of those complex performances that makes you think, if this guy doesn’t get a supporting actor Oscar nomination, there’s really no justice in the world.

“Winter’s Bone” is directed by Debra Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Anne Rosellini. Granik manages to immerse us in the milieu of this unusual American space (or is it more usual than some of us think?), without coming across as some sort of cultural reporter who parachutes into the backwoods and takes an arm’s-length look at hillbillies. Instead, the killing and gutting of a squirrel for food is treated as a necessary skill that Ree needs to teach to her younger siblings, in a scene that unfolds with a matter-of-fact bluntness.

Along with winning the prizes for best director and actress in the audience-voted awards at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, “Winter’s Bone” previously took a Grand Jury prize at Sundance. A nice haul for a small-scaled independent film, but well earned.

Knight and Day. “A summer night at the multiplex in 1988.”

Grown Ups. “Avoids mid-life nostalgia by sticking with slapstick and bad taste.”

I Am Love. “Even Swinton gets inundated by the over-the-top approach.”

Daddy Longlegs. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Lenny, the central figure of “Daddy Longlegs,” is a singular character in movies: irresponsible, self-centered, a loose cannon distinguished by one hard-to-reconcile fact: he’s furiously attached to his children.

The only movie antecedents for this character would be those film noir anti-heroes (Richard Widmark in “Night and the City,” say) who scramble from one scheme to the next, always missing their chance and perpetually disappointing the people who’ve made the mistake of loving them.

On that last point, Lenny’s two young sons don’t have much choice. He’s their father, and they are in his custody for only two weeks a year—how can they not love this unstructured, chaotic man, so much a child himself, even if he sometimes scares them?

“Daddy Longlegs” follows Lenny during the two weeks he has custody, a manic period in which he bops through Manhattan (and, in one foolish escapade, a trip to upstate New York with two people he barely knows), trying to juggle a semi-girlfriend and his job as a projectionist at a revival theater.

Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie begin the movie with a dedication to their own father (and others), and you wonder how much of the film is autobiographical. If any of it is, “Daddy Longlegs” qualifies as a remarkable act of filial sympathy, a non-judgmental attempt to portray a complicated, colorful, and sometimes unforgivable figure. One episode has Lenny drugging his boys (played by expressive real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo) so they’ll sleep through the night when he has to work. This dangerous and stupid move comes out of Lenny’s cracked idea of love: he wants to “protect” them from freaking out when they wake up and he’s not there, so he risks their health in the process.

This intriguing film, shot in a jagged, quick-on-the-uptake style familiar from umpteen indie pictures, would not be half as successful without the fascinating presence of Ronald Bronstein in the lead role. Bronstein also contributed to the script and he fully captures Lenny’s wheedling, hustling ways (Lenny is always trying to get someone to bail him out of a jam by proclaiming, “This time it’s a real emergency,” which understandably leaves him stranded when he actually has real emergencies).

Bronstein is a filmmaker, too; his “Frownland” is also a terrific character study, if harder to watch than this more expansive film. When a movie makes you curious about what happens next to an off-putting character, it has succeeded—and in that sense, the Safdies and Bronstein have thoroughly succeeded.

Holy Rollers. “Eisenberg’s been giving Michael Cera a run for his money in the diffident-hero department.”

And an articulate interview (her, not me) with Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik:

By Robert Horton

Before she won the best director award at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, Debra Granik visited the fest with her film “Winter’s Bone,” a gripping drama about a 17-year-old named Ree (breakout performance by Jennifer Lawrence) who searches for her missing father within the insular world of the Missouri Ozarks.

I interviewed Granik in a hotel conference room that was larger than the film’s main location. An intense and articulate speaker, she began by talking about the novel by Daniel Woodrell that inspired the movie.

Q: Were you interested in this part of the country before you read the novel?

Debra Granik: Before I read the novel I was not familiar with it. I’ve always been curious about ways of life in the United States that are so different from mine—I feel like I’m part of a large demographic of people that feel like they came from nowhere. To me it’s unfamiliar to think of long-term family histories affiliated with land where there is not affluence. This is not the landed gentry, this is poverty—I say “poverty” in quotes, because this is not spiritual or cultural poverty, it’s financial poverty. Financial hardscrabble.

Q: The area is not only geographically distinct, but it also operates according to its own rules.

DG: Economically, too. The word “hillbilly” is always at the margins when I’m being asked about the film, and what I found [in talking to residents] was that the definition was economically derived. Meaning, one image of the hillbilly is of a very reclusive person not participating in a larger economic system. When their houses don’t grow bigger, and they don’t have new cars, and their clothes grow worn and are re-used, does that make them lazy and not motivated? Are they under-ambitious? All these words are predicated on wanting to participate in a consumer society in which material accumulation is the goal.

Q: We assume that everybody wants to be upwardly mobile.

DG: Right. And a lot of people said to me, that’s never been a part of what folk culture has been about. You don’t always need more. You need what you need—you need to be fed, you have to have toys for childhood, you have to have a vehicle, you have to have Daddy’s squirrel gun, you have to be able to hunt. You need a lot of things, but you don’t necessarily need a fantasy of your house becoming four times larger than it is. It’s not being under-ambitious. The ambition is to like life for every day that you live it. It doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy something to make that life worthy. And some traditions really speak to that: playing music for no greater gain. Not aspiring to play the Opry in Nashville—maybe expecting to win a fiddle contest.

Q: I believe Jennifer Lawrence is in every scene, isn’t she?

DG:  I think it might be every single scene.

Q: You really had to be in tune to this particular actress, didn’t you?

DG: Very much, and when an actor is doing strong work, it’s like a beautiful symbiosis.

Q: How do you find the right tone, or pitch, for maintaining levels of acting through a low-budget shoot?

DG: I had the privilege of being part of the Sundance workshops years ago, and one thing I give credit to Robert Redford for fighting for is that he laments the day that American film business ever got to the point where you expect an actor to show up the day of, or the night before [filming begins], and just walk on and do it. Actors need time to ramp up, they need to rehearse. And the producers of this film allowed for a week of rehearsal—it doesn’t sound like much, but a full week is something powerful for an actor—to immerse themselves.

Jen had time on the property of the family that allowed us to shoot on at their place, and to meet the little girl that would play her little sister in the film. That happened because they actually bonded; the character was written as a boy. And we had to say to her mother, “In addition to using your house, your chickens, your horses, the oak tree, we were wondering if Ashley could be in the film too?” And they were astounded by that proposition, it was so foreign and out of left-field, but they’d seen that she’d gotten a big kick out of showing this citified crew around the property, and she’d bonded with Jen. And that would’ve never happened if Jen hadn’t shown up early.

Q: This movie is in a certain tradition of American stories.

DG: The western! The American western. Ree’s not gunslinging, but she’s gunslinging through her eyes, her determination, her loyalty. This is so tried-and-true in American films—movies of the thirties, movies by John Ford. The ordinary American who has one thing: one humble parcel of land, two siblings, she’s got these impeccable family values, right? She wants to keep her kin together. And she’s taking the journey of any western hero. There she goes: she has to set out, against her better judgment, to hostile territory. She’s warned, she’s told to turn back. She’s told not to trespass or transgress, and she does because she feels that it’s worth it. We called her a western hero in a girl’s body.

So is this a tradition? Yes. I don’t stick American flags in my films, I don’t add them. I film them when they’re there. Sometimes when I see a super-tattered one, one that’s exhausted, maybe is frayed, like the one that was on the family’s house that we filmed at—you know, this is the kind of western I feel the movie is. It’s threadbare and honest. I feel like it’s a beseeching western, it’s saying “Some of us have really hard lives, you know? It doesn’t mean that we don’t have resolve, that we don’t have lyrical moments, we don’t have the sweetest children and a humble house—but bless us on our journey, ’cause it’s hard!”

On KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher, we talk about another summer of sequels and remakes: here. The movie bit begins at 15:05.