Watching Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last week made me start thinking again about Winter’s Bone—another movie about a young woman being tested by a stormy family crisis, blah blah blah, but so many people adore the damn thing that I had to wonder if maybe I was tired when I saw it or whether—Jesus, I dunno, whether I really have turned into Bosley Crowther and flat-out missed the boat.
But now, having seen it again, I’m ready to swear on a stack of Bibles that I do not like this movie Winter’s Bone, and I did not miss any fucking sailing vessel. To begin with, let me count the ways. I don’t like its lazy reliance on backwoods meth labs and secretive criminal clans as plot devices. I don’t like the cheesy horror movie touches in a low-key drama. I don’t like dialog that aims for memorable quotation status, like “Never ask for what ought to be offered” or “Is this gonna be our time?” I don’t like the dangerous uncle “Teardrop” turning into a bucket of sentimental goo or how freely the movie condemns the only half-written sheriff played by Garret Dillahunt. I don’t like the way other details get fudged (does Ree really burn the photograph album? would such a family-centered woman even consider it in the first place?) or the way all of her problems miraculously auto-correct in the movie’s last ten minutes. I particularly don’t like the nonsensical climax in which her relations cave in and lead her to her father’s body because they feel too much in the spotlight even though Ree’s turning her father’s hands over to the authorities is the surest way to spark an investigation. I like even less the bail-bondsman who magically appears at movie’s end with a packet of money—the exact amount is cunningly left to our imagination—just to reassure our guilty liberal urban asses that the kids won’t be eating squirrel all winter. And finally, I really don’t like the way Winter’s Bone paints the Dolly clan and its cohorts as sinister geeks who communicate via some antiquated Al Capp hickspeak. These trashy, dead-eyed people are so strange and backward they still refer to dating as “keepin’ company” just because it sounds so gosh-darned country, and in exaggerated accents they drawl out cretinously constructed sentences like “I put the hurt on her” and “Talkin’ just causes witnesses”. Sorry, people, but not even in the highest mountains of Arkansas do Ozarkians talk like Mammy Yokum.
Melissa Lawrence’s performance as Ree Dolly isn’t bad in the sense it throws you out of the movie, but you can see her being careful not to make any mistakes, which is a sure sign that she’s not going to show us anything new. She hits all the notes that Debra Granik asks her to, but that’s all she ever hits, and the notes themselves are hollow, obvious ones. Her face never holds more than one emotion at a time, and it’s always one of the same three or four safe, easy-to-scan emotions—grit or defiance or carefully measured doses of confusion or fear—that always fill these can-do stories. And you can forget about Ree communicating through some memorable physical gesture—she may as well not have any arms or legs for all the use Lawrence puts her own limbs to—and by the end of the movie we still don’t know anything about her beyond the fact that she showed some guts in one particular crisis. Great, so she’s a hero. She’s Rocky Balboa. Hooray for free fucking beer.
On the other hand, I give you Mia Williams:
This isn’t the clip I’d pick given my druthers, but it’ll do. What I like about it is the way Mia’s nerves and amusement wash through Katie Jarvis’ face, how her dancing expresses, all at the same time, her self-consciousness, her lack of talent, and her delight in moving around and showing off, and how the emotional cartwheel sparked by her mother’s reappearance causes her to change the most basic way she holds her body. There’s also the wonderfully irrelevant line “I’m gonna wet myself”—a line ringing with more spontaneous life than the whole of Winter’s Bone. You can learn as much about a character from what she does when nothing’s going on as you can in the midst of a crisis, and since the between-crisis moments make up the vast majority of our lives, their exclusion is one of the more mystifying omissions and falsifications in our movies, of which there are many. The most haphazard reach of Winter’s Bone comes in the sorta cute but still over-arranged view of Ree’s little brother sprawled across a trampoline, while just that little clip from Fish Tank shows how many things can be going on even when nothing is happening.
What I’m ultimately talking about here is the distinction Robert Altman used to draw between “acting” and “behaving”, which is the difference between making faces on cue and a denser, blending-in activity which throws off energy and meaning. Tony Soprano and David Brent were wonderful creations because James Gandolfini and Ricky Gervais stitched together a million disparate and often contradictory atom-sized details into an organic whole that highlighted every in and out of those tricky personalities. It’s an approach that reveals mysterious, hearty and immensely satisfying congruences with the world around us, and while it’s common in European art films, it remains pathetically under-applied here. The most telling difference between Mia Williams and Ree Dolly (I mean, besides the fact that one ends up hanging by a thread and the other wrapped in a neat little bow) may be Mia’s ability to fuck things up: near the end of Fish Tank she commits an act of eye-opening callousness while the thing we’re meant to admire most in Ree is her frankly inhuman constancy. Giving off the same exact non-vibe in Scene 42 as in Scenes 1 and 19, Ree never erupts in so much as a snit. Lacking all flaws and bumps and curlicues, her personality can be summed up by a banal adjective or three where Mia resists easy definition precisely because her actions don’t stem from a single wellspring of unchanging goodness. What’s the point of following a character who’s already perfect when her story is just beginning?
I wouldn’t be so down on Winter’s Bone if Debra Granik had merely made a more serious version of Justified—a modest TV series set in Kentucky’s coal country, starring characters who could pass for Ree Dolly’s cousins. The problem isn’t the 95% fresh rating which the movie has racked up at Rotten Tomatoes; if people want to like a thing, that’s fine, it’s no skin off my nose. No, the problem comes when such an obvious fiction is almost unanimously hailed as psychologically and ethnographically “real” (and I’ll leave it to you to see how many times that word comes up in the reviews). Winter’s Bone may seem real compared to Hollywood films—films which sell tickets by being as unreal as they possibly can—but it has nothing to do with “reality” if the word means anything at all. If this is the closest our movies can come to reflecting either American life or the physical world, it’s probably time to throw in the towel.
Agh, screw it, as the Italians say—I’ll let Mia have the final word.