film response: Winter’s Bone

American cinema often gives drug dealers and drug addicts special powers, or else turns drug trips into ecstatic pseudo-religious conversion experiences. Both Hollywood and independent filmmakers follow these patterns. I’ve assumed it’s because they’ve never known any drug addicts or dealers. (That can’t be true, can it?) Most of the addicts and dealers I’ve known or come in contact with were boring and/or scary assholes you wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes with, never mind two hours.

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Consequently, and since the early 2000s, I usually run screaming from movies centered around drug addicts or dealers or drug culture. This is a bias but I don’t care. I doubt I’ve missed anything. For a long time I considered Drugstore Cowboy to be the only film featuring drug users that was worth watching. Seeing it again every couple years I’m always amazed that it was made in the 80s. It’s still the best, the most honest, the funniest and the most modern movie about drugs that I’ve ever seen.

The fact that Darren Aronofsky riffs on (or rips off) a few seconds of Cowboy to create Requiem For A Dream‘s signature and interminably repeated segue makes me even less disposed to like his take on drug experiences. After having given it at least 4 chances, I still say it’s show-offy, repetitive and sadistic. And not funny. And there’s also my 10-minute rule to consider: It still applies, even to Ellen Burstyn.

One of the reasons why I warmed up to Sherrybaby, besides Maggie Gyllenhaal’s deliberately sloppy and humble performance, was because it attempted to address the legacy of drug addiction: Even after rehab, even after 12-step, you still have to face the past. Your family might never forgive you for being such an asshole. You still are that person who first stuck a needle in her arm and abandoned her child. Your character flaws have not magically gone away and not everyone is going to forgive you. The hard choices keep coming and there’s no such thing as redemption.

Usually, drug movies ignore redemption anyway and revel in the self-destruction and disintegration. In a film like Requiem, there’s no chance we’ll even glimpse the other side of addiction. The “redemption,” such as it is, inverts into abject spectacle, in the audience’s complicit voyeurism, not in anything that might change for the characters.

How many films have you seen (that weren’t documentaries) that address the aftermath for the characters who survive addiction? There’s nothing sexy, or, I guess, cinematic about those stories, else there would be more of them. For me, there’s not much difference ideologically between The Passion of the Christ and Requiem For A Dream. Drugs. Religion. What difference does it make as long as the sacrifice is long and bloody? And well-shot.

I admire Winter’s Bone because it subtly dramatizes the aftermath of drug use and production on several innocents: The daughter of a convicted meth dealer and cooker, his two young children and his mute, emotionally damaged wife are all about to lose their home because the father will probably jump bail. The 17-year old daughter, Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence, must track him down before his court date.

I can’t fault the performances. Or rather, the one performance that matters. Lawrence performs as doggedly and solidly as her character does, pursuing her desperate cause. This film also benefits from a refusal to glamorize drug users or their experiences, nor does it allow any wallowing in misery. The film’s success and credibility therefore depend on a convincingly realized milieu; and I just wasn’t convinced.

Ree’s entire community seems to be operating in one of those alternate cinematic universes without consequences or minimum logic in which people can be murdered, houses can burn down, yokel drug cartels headed by a Corleone-like but still white-trash cult of personality can operate with impunity and a drug dealer named Teardrop (Ree’s uncle has a real cute name.) can chant and scare off the area’s lone visible police officer into not arresting him. All that and I haven’t mentioned the chainsaw scene and the severed limbs in a burlap bag delivered by Ree to that lone police officer who asks few questions. Yeah, that could happen.

Director, please.

Still, I spent the first 30 minutes or so of Winter’s Bone looking forward to what would come next. I liked the look of the film although the only sequence I really remember is the livestock auction. But, then, roundabout after a few lines of crank, incredulity set in, my eyes rolled, I kept thinking that the movie had started to feel a bit like The Hills Have Eyes or something and then I got bored, as so often happens when I watch movies which purport to take place in the real world and yet whose writers demonstrate few real-world observational skills.

I suggest they go watch Frontline’s documentary The Meth Epidemic, like I did today in an effort to remind myself of verifiable reality. In it, they’ll observe plenty of law enforcement and no drug dealers with shaman-like powers. It’s a lot better than Traffic, too.

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