Sunday 26 September 2010

No Bone Unturned

Winter's Bone 2010 US
Directed by Debra Granik
Screening at UK cinemas now

Warning... spoilers!

Winter’s Bone is one of those movies that I find very difficult to review... hence this post is probably going to end up being a very short read (not sure if that is good news or bad news to you). It’s not that it’s a bad film because it isn’t... it’s a very good one. It’s just that it felt, I don’t know, kinda been there, done that to me... which to be honest, isn’t a really useful criticism and I guess when you’ve been watching movies for as many decades as I have it’s to be very much expected.

The film tells the story of the quest of a young daughter from a family who’s father has run out on them, so she is looking after her demented and unresponsive mother and a younger brother and sister and trying to keep everyone surviving under stressful and sometimes humiliating circumstances. However, if the local sherriff can’t find her father before his date with a law court comes up, then the house will be taken and the family scattered to the winds. The plucky heroine will leave no stone unturned in her quest to discover her father’s fate.

Right from the start you can tell that you are in the hands of a director and crew that really knows what they’re doing - it’s startlingly well lit (if a little artificial on some of the interiors), tremendously well performed, well edited (with a continuity caveat that I’ll come to later) and has a gentle pacing and a certain quirkiness in it’s sense of focus which gives one a comfortable feeling when watching it. But I never really found myself actually caring for any of these well drawn characters... not quite sure why because the director was taking great pains to keep reminding me of the children and their ultimate fate should the heroine fail in her quest by introducing shots of the children engaging in various activities at various points in the movie. That’s what I meant by quirkiness... most big budget films wouldn’t take time to slowly build a relationship for the audience with the children in a series of little vignettes scattered seemingly randomly throughout the course of the picture... a big budget movie would wield a far blunter instrument and just bludgeon the audience throughout the first 20 minutes of the movie until even the slowest souls would begin to realise just what is at stake here!

A nice thing as an addendum to this is that one of the more concentrated scenes with the kids can be used as a comparison to the older sister who has taken on what turns out to be a very dangerous quest. As she shows the children how to gut a squirrel and chastises the boy for not wanting to pull the intestines from the dead animal... telling him that there is a lot of stuff he’s going to need to get over in order to survive, it mirrors a scene near the end of the movie where the heroine herself cannot bring herself to chainsaw off the hands of her dead father for identification and somebody else has to do it because she is not strong enough.

The film is a slow build as the daughter follows the trail of her missing father through a terrain of very hostile and misogynistic characters and I can see why some people have been very much taken with this film from the angle of its mystery storyline (although at the screening I saw there were five walkouts within the first 20 minutes!). Personally, storyline never really means a great deal to me, it’s not what gets me going in a movie and this is perhaps why it failed to grab me in the same way as a great many people. And then there’s the continuity thing...

Early on there is a scene which takes place during the day and then another scene which takes place in the evening of the same day and it’s clear that some time must have passed. This is followed a little later by another scene and the dialogue is such that it’s clear the first scene I’m talking about happened only a few hours before that... so this sequence was obviously originally intended to follow up the original sequence. I reckon the scenes must have been reshuffled in editing because the rhythm of the picture needed to change... that’s my guess anyway. It’s a shame that the scene couldn’t just be reshot but I guess reshoots are pretty expensive... it could maybe have done with a few words redubbed to take away it’s originally intended placement in the narrative flow is my guess... either that or I was really phased by how artificial some of the interior lighting looks (not a criticism and I loved the whole orange VS blue cup placement thing) and mistook one of the scenes as taking place at night. I’d go back and check but... it’s not the kind of movie I could watch for a repeat viewing.

The one really refreshing thing about the whole film is the way the director (and this was adapted from a novel so it might not actually have been her decision... tough to know when I haven’t read the novel) lets the actual mystery of the story take a back-burner. When the corpse of the father is found (kind of) there is a real sense of everything kind of resolving itself without any fuss and with nobody really caring about whether people find out who killed him or not. Certainly the audience is not let into the identity of the man’s killer and this casual approach to what was originally the driving force of the story is a nice thing. At the end of the movie you have the feeling that one of the characters has figured out who put the father in his cold, watery grave and is going to do something about it... but that’s not going to happen within the body of the movie itself and is left for your imagination.

At the end of the movie I was happy that I’d seen it and, although it’s not a personal favourite, it’s certainly one I could recommend to lovers of low-key mystery movies of the sort normally associated with a private detective of some description. A good second feature from an obviously smart director.


  1. Thanks for this! I'm a needy story person--can't be happy unless I know there's an arc somewhere--but glad to know there's still a film other there, getting distributed, that works so strongly with vignettes rather than leading the viewer by the nose. Also like the lack of formal resolution. Seems more acceptable these days.

  2. Hey there. Yeah, I know story is what gets most people and 99% directors would probably tell you movies are all about story... but I don't think that's strictly true myself and would put up a good scrap to depend my point of view. Thanks for reading!