OscaRank: “Winter’s Bone”, Thugs and Harmony

This one hits close to home.

Winter’s Bone opens up a world that some may feel is fictitious but I can confirm first hand that places like this still do exist in this futuristic year of 2011.  Not the story itself…that would be messed up. But I can relate to the living conditions and the cliquish quality of rural backwoods communities. I knew areas like this where I grew up.

This mystery drama covers about a one week period in the life of 17 year old Ree Dolly (the engaging Jennifer Lawrence) as she tries to track down her deadbeat daddy who’s wanted by the police and who put their house up for collateral against a bond. If her father doesn’t show up for court in a week’s time, her and her family will be left homeless. Ree is on her own raising her younger brother and sister while caring for her invalid mother so she has no one to turn to except dig into the dank and murky underbelly of this poor rural Ozarks community. She herself is at a crossroads of sorts between potential death and certain homelessness.

The pace is slow and deliberate and perfect for a movie of this nature. The silent looks between characters speak more about how this part of the world lives than the dialogue itself. The people in the community is about as friendly as a cold glass of water in the face. Everyone is slightly off in one way or another. Riddled with drugs, crime and corruption. A place where the community protects secrets from the outside world and anyone wanting to uncover those hidden horrors. And this fear of discovery knits together the people in a strange harmonious tapestry.

Jennifer Lawrence (also starring in the upcoming X-Men: First Class) carries Winter’s Bone with youthful power and fragility. At any moment, you fear for her character’s life as she enters deeper and deeper into the hive to find her father. Ree knows that she could possibly die if she asks the wrong person the wrong questions but she needs to ask them or the alternative would mean doom for her family.

Other notable is John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. He is her reluctant protector against the thugs trying to stop Ree at every turn. Hawkes shines as the second best portrayal of a drug addict this year (the first is Christian Bale in The Fighter.)

Winter’s Bone at it’s core is a disturbing look at the threatening nature of small town gossip and the kinds of difficult choices that can be left on the plate of a 17 year old when she’s the sole breadwinner. And even though the resolution becomes apparent about half way, the result is no less effective and appropriate. You won’t find many surprises along the way…just troubling images along the route that needs to be taken to get there.

A solid movie from beginning to end. However, I can’t help but think this could be as polarizing as Fargo and No Country For Old Men in it’s taste to people. You’ll either love it or hate it. But I hope you love it. Top 5 movie of the year? No. Top 10? Absolutely.

8 severed hands out of 10

Bones throughout history


OscaRank: Getting the Oscar takes “True Grit”

Cross-examining Lawyer: Mister Cogburn, in your four years as US Marshal, how many men have you shot?
Rooster Cogburn: Shot? Or killed?
Cross-examining Lawyer: Let us restrict it to killed so we may have a manageable figure!

True Grit gets under your fingernails as a hard-riding Western full of well-defined and colourful characters. Every person in this film seems to be a slightly over-the-top caricature of some personality you’d see in a border town in the Old West. The over-zealous lawyer. The shifty trader. The posse of bad guys (who really could’ve stepped out of Back to the Future Part 3). The uber-confident ranger. But the two most memorable are the over-the-hill gritty Marshall Rooster Cogburn and the electrifying teenage daughter bent on avenging her father’s death.

Let’s start with the former: Rooster Cogburn played superbly by Jeff Bridges who may possibly be one of the most underrated and under-utilized actors in Hollywood. His movies are either home runs (like the Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart, Seabiscuit), cult-like hits (TRON, Iron Man), or complete bombs (K-Pax). But one thing you can never take away from Bridges is that whatever character he’s given, he immerses himself fully so the only thing you recognize is that truly unique Bridge-esque rasp he’s perfected. Jeff Bridges pulls off a version of Rooster Cogburn that very well could be better than John Wayne’s version (and which won him the Oscar in 1969). I can’t 100% confirm this because I haven’t seen the original in ages and only barely recall it. Bridges probably won’t win the Oscar this year for Best Actor but it’s simply because of Colin Firth in the King’s Speech…but y’never can tell.

As good as Bridges was, the true star of True Grit is for 14-year old sensation (and unknown), Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the plucky Mattie Ross. She commands every scene she’s in…which is pretty much the whole movie. No actress I’ve seen this young has portrayed so much range since Ellen Page in Juno. It was a true crime that she didn’t get top billing in True Grit since she plays easily the second most important role besides Bridges. She falls behind Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. I know I have to think about this from the promoters POV where they have to decide before a movie releases if people will go see a Western starring Bridges and Steinfeld or a Western starring Bridges, Damon and Brolin. I give them that. What would be an even bigger crime would be if young Hailee didn’t get and Oscar nom AND the win for Best Actress.

I also realize I said the same thing after watching Juno while talking about Ellen Page.  Here’s that quote:

Ellen Page, for her range and her courage to take on such a role, deserves the Oscar. And even if the movie itself doesn’t win Best Picture this year, I will honour it by giving it my highest score ever, a perfect 10…take that Academy!!!

So I could be wrong. The Oscar eventually went to Marion Cotillard for her role in La Vie En Rose. In retrospect, Marion’s role was good but not great like Page’s. And Best Picture went to No Country For Old Men…it was warranted.

Back to True Grit.

Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf provided a slightly dim-witted but good-hearted foil to Rooster and Mattie’s sharp insights.

Most of the humour of True Grit comes from the no-holds-barred racism in the movie. It reminds us just how absurdly racist views were back then and by simply keeping to the realism brought forward intentional “unintentional” humour. For example, (spoilery but not relevant to the plot in any way) near the beginning, there’s a hanging about to take place with three prisoners: two white, one Native. The two white prisoners were allowed their soliloquies of humility and regret which each stretched a couple minutes before the black hood was placed over their heads. When we got to the third prisoner (the Native), he thought he would be given the same opportunity and went into his speech but was cut off mid-way through the first sentence by a hood before all three where hung. The pure lack of respect made me feel uncomfortable but felt incredibly guilty how juvenile folks really were back then. OK…so that description doesn’t sound THAT funny. But I never said this was a comedy.

True Grit is a snapshot of reality in the 1800’s. I’m sure someone watching a movie about our time concerning gay rights in a few hundred years will react the exact same way.

As the race for the Best Picture Oscar is beginning to take form and we’re finally seeing the possible horses up for nomination, it is difficult to know who will win. I think it will come down to a matter of preference in style for the potential viewer. But with the Coen Brothers at the helm (who won Best Picture for the aformentioned No Country For Old Men, friendo) and Stephen Speilberg as Executive Producer, this one may just have the edge.

9.7 half bitten tongues out of 10

True Blood Grit