Monday, October 4, 2021

Jenniferography, part 1: Winter's Bone (2010)

Because of the great success of my series on the filmography of Kevin Costner (the Kevinography) and Channing Tatum (Channingography) - success defined by "no one made a fuzz about it" - I decided to also start one about Jennifer Lawrence. I had previously watched the Hunger Games movies and the X-Men movies featuring her, as well as Mother!, so I decided that before I rewatched those I would start with some I didn't already kow. 

Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a resident of the Ozarks in Missouri, in an area that could easily be taken directly from the pages of J. D. Vance's "Hillbilly Eligy". There are a lot of rundown houses, ruined houses, rundown people, ruined people. Everyone is poor, everyone is miserable, everyone is dreary. Ree is 17, saddled with two young siblings and a catatonic mother, caring for the complete family. The father is in jail, and now he's out - somewhere. 
As the family quickly learns, part of his rehabilitation agreement was that he present himself in court in a week's time, and he has since vanished. Ree couldn't give less of a fuck about the absent father, but the family patriarch put up their home as bond. She now has one week to find him and convince him to appear in court, or else face homelessness for her and her family. 
Unfortunately, this proves more difficult than expected. The tight-knit community blocks all her attempts. Even her uncle tells her that it's her father's decision whether he shows up or not, and that they have simply to live with the consequences. The family unhelpful as that, even backing up the sentiment with a threat of violence, it's easy to anticipate what reaction will come from the rest of the criminal Ozark underbelly. And that's exactly what happens. Violence and dead ends tempt utter despair on Ree.
That's where I want to leave the synopsis for now, not to spoil anything if you haven't yet watched this movie.
I have no way of knowing if this is true, but given the date of the movie, it makes sense that the people in charge of the casting for the Hunger Games movies watched it. It almost seems like a casting reel in some respects. 
On the one hand, there is the extremely dreary Ozarks landscape. The rundown houses and people, the bad jobs, the non-existent healthcare, the bad food situation, lacking education, all of it could be set directly in District 12. That alone of course doesn't do much; it's par for the course for these stories of White Trash, much like sprayed, dirty hallways in anonymous apartment blocks belong to every story about the African American experience. 
But the character of Ree also has strong vibes of Katniss Everdeen in the way she carries herself. It's not like the characters themselves are much alike, but the way they're presenting themselves to the world - stoic, with a touch of badass, willing to take a beating but incredibly vulnerable and young under the surface - is eerily similar. And Lawrence really nails it. In the hands of a lesser actress, this would just be an emotionless performanc, presenting a stony outlook to the world, but Lawrence manages to give Ree a vulnerability under the strong surface that creates a lot of nuance. 
The story itself is also surprisingly written and takes some unexpected turns. It's almost like an expedition into a strange, foreign country. People are behaving according to a complex set of rules and norms that outsiders cannot penetrate, and Ree is an outsider - although she doesn't really know why. She can navigate a lot of the toxic masculinity and faux "family values" subculture, but the norms of the criminal fraternity, she cannot penetrate. 
Therefore, her mission is doomed to fail. The state itself is uncaring. Of course Missouri has no use for a run-down shack in the Ozarks like the one Ree lives in, and of course putting her and her family out on the street does nothing than create misery, but everything is geared towards that result with disheartening inevitability. 
Whether or not this seemingly inevitable conclusion comes to pass I do not want to spoil. But this isn't Vance's self-congratulatory hagiography, it's much more real than that. It's not like a happy ending is waiting for anyone at that particular cul-de-sac of the American Dream.