Winter's Bone a Bleak Masterpiece

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Directed by Debra Granik

100 mins. Rated R (language and violence)

Winter’s Bone isn’t knocking anyone dead at the box office for several reasons: it’s an independent film, it has no star power, it lacks a major distributor, and its story line is bleak and depressing. But make no bones about it--it’s the best American film of 2010.

Winter’s Bone guts the American Dream like an illegally jacked deer. Its protagonist is Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence in a performance that makes all the other Oscars hopefuls look like poseurs. Ree is a girl with deep troubles, not the least of which is that she’s seventeen and doesn’t have the luxury of being an adolescent. She lives in a ramshackle Ozarks cabin with a catatonic mother and two young siblings for whom she’s the de facto caregiver. Her daddy is AWOL and (apparently) a bail jumper who used the cabin to secure freedom before his court appearance. Ree needs to find him and make sure he keeps that date, or she, her brother, her sister, and her crazy mother will lose the cabin. Her journey through the Ozarks backwoods in search of her father makes Dante’s Inferno seem like a stroll through a tulip farm.

Director Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, shows us an America most people would rather pretend doesn’t exist. Think lawless Appalachia, mountain poverty, and blood feuds are relics of the past? Replace the moonshine stills of yesterday with meth labs, and the 19th century Ozarks become a 21st century nightmare where the code of the hills prevails, and where folks would rather mete out mountain justice than ask the local sheriff so much as the time of day. It’s just the way things are and people like Ree don’t get to have prolonged childhoods; their futures are dictated by circumstance, not dreams.

Jennifer Lawrence is stunning, a woman-child who must swallow pride, stare horror in the face, and grow up faster than anyone should. She strikes a perfect balance between steely resolve, resignation, sorrow, and fear. Almost as good is John Hawkes as her uncle Teardrop, the brother of Ree’s missing father. He has a tender side, but he’s as incendiary as dry straw in a blowtorch factory. One of the film’s open questions is whose side he’s on.

Open questions are among the many things that make this film special. Looking for easy-to-digest answers? Don’t. Looking for nostrums? None here. Want a tidy resolution? Sorry, life isn’t like that--especially for those who are dealt cards from the losing middle of a stacked deck. This is not an easy film to watch, but view it you should. It will leave you shattered, outraged, and perhaps horrified. But I will guarantee you will not forget it. Call this one a dark masterpiece. Find out why this adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.


Emmylou Harris Thrills Sold-Out Crowd

Emmylou Harris

November 11, 2010

Calvin Theater

Northampton, MA

Emmylou Harris performed before a sold-out Calvin Theater on Thursday November 11 and once again demonstrated why she’s an American treasure. It’s not easy to turn a thousand-seat auditorium into a living room, but she managed it.

At 63 Harris has lost surprisingly little of the power or range of her youth, and the most visible effect of all the years on the road is that she’s more graceful and gracious than ever. She certainly looked the part of the reigning queen of cerebral country folk music as she stood center stage, perfectly coiffed and sporting an elegant gold necklace that accented a spangly flowing skirt, black top, and—of course—finely tooled boots. Watching her work with her four-piece band—which included longtime touring partners Stuart Duncan (mandolin, fiddle) and Phil Maderia (accordion, keyboards)—makes you understand instantly why other musicians love working with Harris. It’s always about the song with Harris. As singular as her voice is, she’s never afraid to allow a thick aural ambience to envelop it, nor does she need to hog the spotlight. In fact, she spent a considerable amount of time walking out of it, turning her back to the front, and jamming with the band. Every now and then you get the impression that she’d be quite the whiz on the dance floor. The songs demanded that she not stray far from the microphone, but she usually made her back with sashays suggestive of waltzes and two-steps.

Harris thrilled the crowd with a lot of familiar material, in part because she hasn’t had a solo release since All I Intended to Be in 2005. That title is a great metaphor for Harris in late career. As she told the audience, “I never wanted to be anything but a folk singer and now here I am.” Let’s first send a virtual hug to a singer who hasn’t run from the “f” word by inventing new terms to avoid saying “folk music.” With that out of the way we can say that there probably isn’t a genre that totally contains Harris. Yes, there are sweet folk songs—and has there ever been a sadder one than her cover of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye,” or one that blows the lid off the American Dream like “Red Dirt Girl”?—but Harris’s repertoire is also filled with country, Appalachian, and pop songs, and since her initial collaboration with Daniel Lanois more than a decade ago, the arrangements are multi-layered and sophisticated. But when she needs to, she can still peel away those layers and use stark simplicity in ways that astonish. At one point near the end of the show a microphone failed and a horrendous electronic crack ripped across the auditorium. Unfazed, she stepped to the front of the stage with Duncan and Medeira and delivered an a capella unamplified gospel song and you could hear every note, even up in the nosebleed seats. She came back for her encore with her two dogs in tow, both of whom soaked up some loving from the front two rows. Harris is a long-time animal rights activist and gave a plea for folks to adopt shelter dogs before launching into the finale, a cover of “Pancho and Lefty.” Smiles as wide as the prairie were upon the faces of the audience as they poured out upon the street. Many seemed to meander, as if dazed and not ready for the evening to end. Well, yeah….

A plug also to the evening’s opening act, a young quartet from Rhode Island who call themselves The Low Anthem. Let’s just say there are no categories for this band. Reedy-voiced lead singer and songwriter Ben Knox Miller sounds a bit like a young John Prine, but the music is another thing altogether. What label would you apply to a piece arranged for two oboes, a pump organ, a French horn, a harmonica, and a musical saw? The four musicians spent stage time passing off turns on the dozen or so instruments on stage. Although their set contained some songs that might comfortably fit in a folk or country box, most of it did not. In fact, lots of it was a meditative mash-up of psychedelia, trance, and four-part harmony singing. It’s hard to say if this music would be enjoyable out of its live context—but The Low Anthem is certainly a fascinating group to catch live. We’ll weigh in on their recording Oh my God, Charlie Darwin when we’ve had a chance to listen, but the title alone clues you that orthodoxy isn’t in the offing.