6 July 2010
Poor Timothy Olyphant. While he’s wallowing about as the big fish in the very small pond that is “Justified,” his former “Deadwood” co-stars Garret Dillahunt (who played the psychopathic Mr. W.) and John Hawkes (Sol Starr) have found much richer material in Debra Granik’s wonderful rural thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” based on the Daniel Woodrell novel. Moreover, these actors have delightfully reversed their earlier characters; while Dillahunt now appears as the ineffective but earnest cop, Hawkes no longer offers us his wide blue eyes as in “Deadwood,” but uses his hollow cheeks, broken nose, enormous (and beautiful) hands, and perpetual cigarette to become the terrifying meth-cooking Teardrop, who isn’t quite sure whether he cares enough about his brother’s family to help them escape starvation.
But I digress. This movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence in the major role of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose sole concern is to find a way to keep her family alive. Lawrence appears in virtually every scene — teaching her two younger siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel, hunting down her father whose disappearance makes it likely they’ll lose their home, hanging laundry, frying potatoes. This is a story about a very young, very smart woman who’s taken on the unenviable job of ensuring that her family survive (not unlike another one of my all-time favorite films, “Fresh”) in the Missouri Ozarks. Moreover, she’s got to accomplish this job amidst the complicated, competing logics of family loyalty and disloyalty, pride in the midst of poverty, and the rules of law and outlaws; it doesn’t occur to her or anyone else that she is a child and shouldn’t have such heavy responsibility. Lawrence plays her role with an extraordinary sureness, even when she’s surrounded by experienced actors like Hawkes whose parts give them the chance to appear more vividly creepy. I fear she’s too subtle an actor to receive the recognition she deserves, as awards so often seem to go to the grandstanders; but she’s sure to add many more nominations to the Best Actress Prize she won at the Seattle Film Festival this year. When she’s getting in a car with someone very scary, she turns to her younger brother and says, “Fry the potatoes till they’re brown and then turn off the stove,” exactly like a big sister would do. She’s multi-tasking — frantically trying to teach her little siblings how they might feed themselves in case things get worse than they already are, at the same time that she’s afraid she really might not come back.
It’s about time we had a film that showed us true Southern poverty without turning its inhabitants into simplistic rubes or romantic Hollywood versions of “authentic.” I even found myself entering into their own ways of thinking. The characters speak of certain men in the Dolly family with a terrified reverence that verges on myth-making; but slowly one begins to realize that the women possess an equal if not superior capacity for brutality all the scarier because no such reverence for them exists. Family pride is one place where they glean this power. “I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered,” Ree spits at a bail bondsman looking to collect on the debt — and that pride is genuine, even if her family is the heart and soul of her problems. There is no local color, and Lawrence never prettifies herself to ensure a career as the next Lindsay Lohan. This film feels truer than that — and depending on its popularity, might well curb tourist traffic to the Ozarks for years to come.
And then there’s the music, which Granik uses throughout to jar us. Acid metal blurts out of the house of her best friend, now married to a petty patriarch. In another house, a group of old-timey bluegrass musicians play a couple of heartbreakingly lovely classic tunes — but by this time, that music seems so awfully out of touch with the grim realities of life in the Missouri mountains that we’re mostly struck by the disjuncture. Even when Teardrop picks up a banjo and strums it with expert, if rusty, fingers (again, those beautiful hands of Hawkes’), the music comes from left field, always making you realize you don’t know what’s coming next. (Apparently Hawkes has contributed to the forthcoming soundtrack with an instrumental called “Bred and Buttered.) Best of all is a terrific sequence shot at a cattle auction, where Ree is overwhelmed by the sound of the cattle lowing, the auctioneer babbling, animals banging into metal cages. It’s one of those extraordinary true moments onscreen — you have no idea how perfectly such sounds might capture her mood until you see it.
If there’s one thing that motivates everyone equally in Ree’s world, it’s talk. Worse than Ree’s walkabout through the back woods to successively higher-ranked crystal meth dealers as she looks for her father is the resulting gossip about it. At first Ree hopes that word will get around to her father so he’ll come back to help save the house, but it ends up serving the purpose of shaking the bad guys’ trees. Her world hangs on the delicate balance of silence and reputation; thus, talk becomes a weapon far more effective than any other, and Dillahunt’s Sheriff Baskin knows this as well as any of the macho meth kingpins. Not talking is a point of pride for Ree, but this is a political position that only makes sense in an environment where talk can destroy.
Granik keeps her eye on the ball. Another director might pause for a romantic view of the hills or a charmingly dilapidated house, or insist that her characters voice those Southernisms that make a show like “Justified” so obviously designed for outsiders. In contrast, Granik knows this is a film about focusing on the trees — the interpersonal politics and rules of a real community; even the characters’ accents aren’t overdone. When the story really begins to cook into a thriller, you realize how fully you’ve begun to make sense of things on their terms. This is her real accomplishment as a director: to avoid all the pitfalls of Southern stereotypes and Hollywood glamorizing of the rural. Like Lawrence’s tight, perfect performance, Granik’s directing is unembellished while still jolting her viewers as she gradually reveals the truth of the tale. The proof is in the storytelling, and Granik gets it.
Great film. Go see it to get more attention for this little gem.
17 April 2010
Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable: “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again.
But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show. Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them. Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist. That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again. It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.
Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment. Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried). Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers.
Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath. In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.
If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with. Instead, he plays with the usual suspects: comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death.
In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene. Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge. He brings this up in the car as they leave.
Raylan: “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office. If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional. I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”
Rachel, smiling wryly: “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?” …
Raylan: “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that. But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”
Rachel: “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line. And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”
Raylan: “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”
Rachel: “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger? That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”
Raylan: “What do I get away with?”
Rachel: “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?” (Raylan smirks. Rachel persists.) “You think I’d get away with that?”
Raylan: “Go on, try it on.” (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might. End of scene.)
See? It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive. Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop. After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control. He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins. Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.
And what happens at the end of the episode? Rachel does try on the cowboy hat. But it doesn’t fit.