Archive for February 13, 2011

The real battle in storytelling is with the cliches. You sit down to write a different ‘coming of age’ story. You pick a female protagonist, an unlikely location and you paint a grim picture of life addled with addiction, poverty and a fierce sense of kinship. You think that’s distinct – the trunk and branches that should hold the narrative seem real – so, you start arranging the leaves of the tree. It is then the hard work begins. These leaves look no different from the leaves you have seen on many other trees. Then begins your battle with the cliches. Fortunately for us, this is a battle that Debra Granik wins with aplomb in Winter’s Bone. In her dual role as writer and director, she scripts and brings to life on screen a searing coming of age story that’s original, disturbing and filled with arresting details.

There are two templates of coming of age story in modern literature. The most famous of them is Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield’s three days in New York after being expelled from his school where he confronts his sexuality, reconciles to his delusions of being the saviour of his generation, deepens his relationship with his sister and discusses life with his former teacher is the most adapted mould. There is no specific external event that triggers Caulfield’s actions. In fact, most of the external world is actually inert to his condition. The strife of Caulfield is internal as his soft idealism dashes against the granite hard reality that is the world outside. As Caulfield hurtles through the three days, the reader is constantly searching for a motive for his martyr without a cause behaviour. There’s none except you discover at the end that the motive was to have him accept adulthood – that living for cause than dying for it is the mark of coming of age.

The simplest example of the other template is ‘Barn Burning’, a short story by Faulkener. Here the catalyst to the coming of age of Sarty Snopes is his disgust at the life of crime and pyromania his father leads. Sarty has to question the only way of life he has known, discover his moral compass and break free. Again, there’s no added motive to Sarty’s actions. It’s his journey of self discovery; of finding his innate idealism in conflict with the principles (or the lack there of) that have reared him.

The second template is the closest that Winter’s Bone gets to as a coming of age tale. It’s a template that Udaan, one of the finest coming of age tales in Indian cinema, follows as well. What Winter’s Bone does beyond the template is to invest in a motive that would have been a story in itself.

Ree Dolly, the seventeen year old protagonist, has her hands full managing her two younger siblings and her ‘not quite there’ mother. There’s a certain elan and economy with which the Granik eases you into the film. There’s a folk song about Missouri that’s playing at the back as the film opens and the radio cackles with the newscast talking about a spell of really cold weather in the area. The stark landscape of Ozarks is quickly established as is the poverty of the families living there through the opening montage of run down houses, disposed cars and the lack of options for feeding the Dolly family dog. Ree is a woman too early – as she takes charge of the breakfast for her siblings, combs her mother’s hair and then walks the siblings to the school while testing them on their spelling and math. This is unlike any America you have seen on screen for a long time. There’s poverty of the kind where the next meal is uncertain, lurking lawlessness around and the class that’s running when the teenaged Ree reaches her school is on parenting which sums up the social environment. There’s also a strange kind of kinship that’s established quite early when the neighbour brings in meat and potatoes for the Dollys with the purpose of knowing why the police (or the law as it’s referred to through the film) had visited them that afternoon. There’s benevolence in here as also a fierce instinct of self preservation; two forces that drive the story forward. Ree accepts both these forces with a line that sums up her own view about the kinship – ‘never ask for what ought to be offered.’

The arrival of the law sets the things in motion. Ree’s father, Jessup, who’s out on bond on charges of ‘cooking’ meth has gone missing a week before his court date. This wouldn’t have meant much to the family except he has pledged the house and the farm to the court. Finding Jessup is the only thing that will keep the family from being out in the cold. The motive for Ree is established. She has to find her father before the week’s up.

This isn’t an easy task. As Ree goes looking for him, she finds an almost mafia-like code of silence pervading the community. She’s constantly advised to stop looking for him for her own good. There are ruses set up to leade her to believe he may be dead including a burnt barn (that’s when you first think of Faulkener) which seems to have gone up in flames because of the meth exploding while cooking. The reactions to her search range from angry but well meaning advice from her uncle Teardrop to active support from her friend (a teenager who already has a baby which makes the parenting class shown earlier in the film quite appropriate), threat of violence from others involved in the meth trade and finally, violence at the hands of women of the house of the local ringleader. Through all this Ree doggedly pursues in her quest. On the surface this is for her family and for a roof on their heads in this particularly harsh winter. But underlying it is Ree’s desire to understand the lives around her and her own life as it would be. By the time Ree finds her father you know she won’t remain the girl she was before she started this search.

This is an incredibly nuanced film. The cold weather and the landscape of Ozarks are used to create a cold, detached mood through the film. Meth is an all pervading character in the film. You see people addicted to it, dying of it, peddling it and living off it. There’s a matter of fact acceptance that eventually everyone will take to it when you find Teardrop asking Ree if she’s developed any taste for it. There is also chauvanism of the kind that would make khap panchayats proud. The distinct sense of discomfort is not only from the nature of Ree’s questions but the fact that she is a woman who is going about seeking such information. And, when things come to a pass, it is the women of Thump Milton’s house (the local ringleader) who get violent with Ree. The men couldn’t bring themselves to be harsh on a girl.

The film rests on Ree’ shoulders and, this is, quite possibly, the best written female character seen on screen for a long time. Ree is remarkably assured and level headed for the kind of world she lives in. It was easy to make her precocious but she isn’t. She has preserved a set of ideals that she lives by and they give her the fortitude to shoulder on as well as the vulnerability to break down when she finds the seizing of the house by court imminent. You could almost see they way life could have turned out for her when she goes to the Army recruitment centre. The singularity of purpose in the face of odds and the moral courage that she demonstrates would have been attributes of a fine young soldier. Those attributes aren’t lost. They eventually help her discover the truth in a test of grit that’s almost mythical.

Winter’s Bone is a poetic film. There’s lyricism amidst dirt, hunger and betrayal. There’s hope and optimism at the end that juxtaposes with an eerie sense of what Ree might become eventually. It’s poetry because it doesn’t wait to explain. It flows and takes you along till the final sequence. Ree on a rowboat on a pond on an inky cold night along with Thump Milton’s women. There’s a surreal beauty around that pond that hides the macabre truth that Ree already knows but is about to ascertain.

The water’s icy cold and the moment the chainsaw cuts to the bone, you know why this is a mould-breaking coming of age film. You also discover why it’s titled Winter’s Bone.