Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Lives on the Edge

There’s a great wave of international crime films--Red Riding, Farewell, A Prophet, the upcoming Animal Kingdom, not to mention that picture about the girl who did that thing one time (like nobody’s made that joke before)--making the rounds this year. But even amidst one of the worst summers ever for mainstream movies, you can still find a couple of features worth your time. One might be the best American film of the year; the other is just OK, yet still worth a look.

The Sundance Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film winner, Winter’s Bone, is the aforementioned “possible best American film of the year” (at least until The Town comes out this fall). Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, this picture finds 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) tracking her missing meth-dealer father through the Missouri Ozarks after the man puts their house up for bond without her knowledge. Described as “hillbilly noir” or “Ozarks noir,” the movie weaves noir tropes with simple, breathtaking scenes of life in an economically depressed region. Working with cinematographer Michael McDonough, director Debra Granik has created a beautiful-looking film that reminded me more than once of the communities in the Catskills where I lived for a time, or of the summer I spent in West Virginia.

Anyone who’s seen the kind of poverty depicted here will be moved by both the details and the film’s overall tone. A scene in which Ree investigates a burned-out meth lab gets equal time to one that finds Ree teaching her siblings how to hunt squirrels. Plot lies buried in scenes of people just scraping by, offering each other food or care--a care that extends to even the movie’s most horrifying moments. The film moves at a elegiac yet brisk pace, and when the story explodes in violence, it doesn’t feel unjustified.

More than the technical aspects of Winter’s Bone, what makes this film a must-see are the performances. It’s a motion picture about people living both in and out our time--the meth of the plot could just as easily have been moonshine--but Granik never makes her characters caricatures. Everyone in the cast appears authentic and lived-in; Granik used non-actors and locals in a few roles, which pays off wonderfully. There’s haunting weariness in these folks’ eyes and in their faces that lends the film an added authenticity. But it is actors Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes (playing Ree’s uncle, Teardrop) who anchor the film. Their work here is the best reason to watch Winter’s Bone. Yes, even more than to see legendary Garret Dillahunt as the local sheriff.

Lawrence is the Carey Mulligan (An Education) of 2010, a young actress delivering a subtle performance that refuses to make obvious choices. Ree Dolly could easily have been a stereotypical “tough chick” in the Lisbeth Salander mold; but instead Lawrence imbues her with a fear and naïveté that sells the performance. While Ree’s got a smart mouth like the great noir heroes, the fact that she’s a teenage girl adds another layer of menace to scenes in which she’s facing a roomful of bearded giants. Lawrence never lets you forget who Ree is--or who Ree wants to be, or thinks she already is--and it makes you root for her even more.

There’s already Oscar talk for Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and the film itself, and while both are deserving, I’d really like John Hawkes to pull a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Hawkes is best known for his work as Sol Star on the HBO-TV series Deadwood, but I remember him too as the convenience-store clerk in From Dusk Till Dawn (he never said “help us!”) and Kenny Powers’ brother on Eastbound and Down. Those quiet, sometimes goofy roles were Hawkes’ bread and butter for a long time, which is why his performance as Uncle Teardrop--a convict looking out for himself until he can’t live with himself any longer--knocked me on my ass. He fills the role with a ferocity that I didn’t know he was capable of--and I love it when an actor can surprise me like that. Teardrop is a tough character. I’ve read comparisons to Omar Little from The Wire, and find them apt. Teardrop is a figure other characters are afraid of, and even though we don’t see much of his fearsomeness on-screen, Hawkes makes you believe it with his stillness and his posture and his eyes of pure steel. This is a man who has seen things, and that attitude carries over into the quiet moments as well. Weeks after watching Winter’s Bone, Hawkes’ final line stays with me, and I hope this leads to more work for him--because, gosh, he’s so good.

Not as first-rate as Jennifer Lawrence or John Hawkes is Bill Pullman in The Killer Inside Me. In fact, this onetime president of the United States isn’t very good at all, giving a ranting and raving performance as West Texas lawman Lou Ford’s lawyer only in a couple of scenes at the end of the picture. But if his acting isn’t the reason to see The Killer Inside Me, director Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the famous 1952 novel of that same name by Jim Thompson, it’s certainly one of them, if only because it left me wondering, Was Pullman bad, or did he loop around to being so bad, it’s good? I opted for the latter.

Fortunately, the film isn’t as bad on the whole as Pullman’s role in it. Too flawed to be a classic but strong enough to avoid a one-way trip on the failboat, Killer is, like Winter’s Bone, a movie that arrives from Sundance surrounded by much buzz. Or, in this case, much controversy over its graphic violence and nihilistic tone. Despite James Ellroy and serial-killer documentaries on A&E-TV being my gateway drug to the world of crime fiction, I’m a pretty squeamish guy--which is a long-winded way of saying that I thought the violence was shocking, but nowhere near as shocking as I had heard before seeing the movie.

Killer’s impact comes from Winterbottom’s tight cinematic focus on Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck). Sometimes he allows Ford to hold our attention a little too long, long enough for the character to really get under your skin. For me, the two most frightening moments in this movie involve Ford’s face. In one case, the deputy gleefully describes a murder he’s committed, while in the other he looks on as one of his victims dies, Ford’s visage cold and utterly lifeless.

In the annals of modern crime fiction, Lou Ford is a more iconic character than Patrick Kenzie in Gone, Baby, Gone and less iconic than Robert Ford (no relation) in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Of the three Affleck performances, however, I like this one more than I did his Robert Ford but not as much as his Patrick Kenzie. Lou Ford could easily be Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) in 1950s Texas, educating hooker Jessica Alba on the merits of Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys. Instead, Affleck chooses to be an “aw-shucks, ma’am” sociopath, going about his life as a small-town lawman until an encounter with Alba leads him into an S&M affair and a revenge scheme. It’s never about money for Ford, though--he’s in it for the fun of tweaking people he knows he’s smarter than, and thinks he’s better than.

That approach, reminiscent of charming serial killers such as Ted Bundy, whose reign of terror was still on the horizon back in the ’50s, makes The Killer Inside Me a companion piece to 2007’s No Country for Old Men, especially when it comes to law-enforcement’s response to Lou Ford’s violent deeds. (Consider why Ford’s boss does what he does.) Thankfully, this film never asks you to empathize with the serial killer, even when you’re presented with the reasons why he might behave the way he does.

Affleck, like Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, is supported in this picture by a rock-solid cast--excepting, of course, the aforementioned Mr. Pullman. Ned Beatty, Simon Baker, and Elias Koteas all do solid work, as do Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. Hudson, as the woman who loves Ford without actually knowing him, is the standout among the supporting players; this was my favorite presentation of hers since Almost Famous (2000). She delivers a very adult performance that takes her to some dark places, and I hope we see more work like this from Hudson in the future.

Despite its strengths and the fact that it is a period offering that doesn’t feel like one, The Killer Inside Me has problems, though not enough to prevent me from recommending it to other moviegoers. It’s never clear whether we’re watching actual events, Ford’s interpretation of those events, or both at the same time; and the plot that wraps around those actions can be hard to follow at times. I’m a big fan of ambiguity in film endings, but not unearned ambiguity. And while the last act or so of this movie seems like Winterbottom is having fun with the genre à la his earlier films Tristram Shandy (aka A Cock and Bull Story) and 24 Hour Party People, the fact that he doesn’t make that clear left me scratching my head over the apocalyptic note on which The Killer Inside Me ends--and not in a good way.

Just like Bill Pullman. Because really, what was he doing here?

The Killer Inside Me and Winter’s Bone are both good alternatives to the summer doldrums, and proof that the indie film industry in America is far from dead. They’re also nice reminders that, during this new wave of international crime flicks, those of us in the States can still produce a pretty damn good crime picture from time to time.

1 comment:

Kiwicraig said...

WINTER'S BONE sounds great Brendan, thanks for the recommendation. I will keep a look out for it here in NZ (will probably be straight-to-DVD here, but you never know - I'll keep an eye peeled on the arthouse/film festival type cinemas too)...