Category Archives: The Watchers

Winter’s Bone (****, 2010)

Ree on the Homestead

Dirty South

I tend to think of the culture of the American Southeast existing on a fluid polarity between Colonel Sanders and Fred Durst.  Well, it’s fluid in at least one direction:  some antebellum gentility can be shown to have blind idiotic rage lurking underneath its surface.  There’s not really anything genteel about the rest.

Winter’s Bone (2010) takes place in an unspecified part of the Ozarks, a poor hill-country region spanning southern Missouri and northern Arkansas which no doubt goes to church but seems forgotten by God anyway.  One wouldn’t know God was around given the people and events encountered by Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) in this film, a 17 year-old surrogate parent-cum-gumshoe who must seek out her breaking bad dad or lose the property she lives on with her siblings and helpless mother.  She has to wade through the undesirables of the “community” in order to ferret out information, knowingly placing herself in harm’s way for the sake of her family.  These are some right nasty hillbillies, and their intransigent wickedness has even the law on edge.

Sherriff

Garrett Dillahunt, who played the Deputy Sherriff in No Country for Old Men, receives a promotion to #1 hick enforcer for this film.

The film is a formal successor to Brick, which transplanted the speech patterns and plot of 1940’s noir film to a contemporary high school, and the spiritual successor to No Country for Old Men, which channeled the hard-bitten culture and landscape of its setting into laconic fodder for its crime-and-consequences myth-making.  Winter’s Bone, however, has a fiercely independent character to it even beyond these films in its refusal to stylize its subject material.  At first I was reluctant to rate the film so highly, then I realized my only qualm was the emotional distance that aesthetic formalism could have provided.  The film is in your face, putting you right alongside the strong-willed but always vulnerable Ree.  There’s nothing pretty to gaze at here, no Burton-esque gothic cuteness or mesmerizing imagery to gussy up the content.  I can almost hear the film saying:  “World’s ugly, yall.”

Whereas as a film watcher I usually favor and am entranced by the clean lines and compositions of film imagery–whether a carefully-controlled mood palette such as in Brick or sharply-realized moments like a pointed flash of lightning on the horizon during one of No Country‘s chases–this film is ugly and is almost aesthetically dull.  It doesn’t have the faux-graininess (or narrative pretension) of “found footage” films, but the film almost feels like cameras were simply set up in these rusted-out locales and left to capture what happened.  It is a hard-boiled detective story of the ethnographic variety, with no artistic formalisms to distance us from the subject material.

Squirrel!

It’s no wonder that Jennifer Lawrence, whose character is in every scene I can recall, was chosen to star in The Hunger Games after headlining this film.  Her Ree is tough, vulnerable, smart, and tender towards her siblings–almost as if the role was written with Katniss Everdeen in mind.  Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, her quest to find her father (ever the elusive embodiment of a secret, a la Harry Lime or Terry Lennox)* puts her in conflict with a number of people who know something but don’t want to tell anything, a menagerie of surly hill people suggesting at times a broke, illiterate and toothless counterpart to the Corleones.  She’s wandering her own smoky Chinatown, Los Angeles seedy types replaced with Durst-ian hayseeds.

You may have guessed at the overall bleakness of the film and, while I wouldn’t dare give away the ending, I do want to say that this is not a nihilistic film which cosmically whimpers into the darkness like No Country or wallows in existential horror like Chinatown.  The journey, nee the location, is the destination here, with plenty horrors along the way to chill the bones.

*These are characters from The Third Man and The Long Goodbye, respectively, whose disappearances drive much of the conflict and action for their films’ mystery-unraveling protagonists.

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Leon: The Professional (***, 1994)

Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in Leon:  The Professional (1994)

Le Assassins Dangerieux

Luc Besson is a strange man.  Anyone who has seen The Fifth Element can attest to the man’s off-kilter sensibilities, which fortunately include encouraging Gary Oldman to act completely insane.

The French director’s first English-language film was Leon:  The Professional (1994), which stars Jean Reno as Leon, the reductio ad absurdum of a hit-man or “cleaner” (in the film’s parlance) who reluctantly takes responsibility for the life of an orphan (a very precocious Natalie Portman, in her film debut).  We’re introduced to Leon on the job, single-handedly taking out a team of mob toughs one by one, flitting in and out of the shadows like some French ninja.  Leon is illiterate, laconic, apparently very good at what he does and only what he does–a man simmered down to the basic elements of “professional assassin”.  He has an Italian mob handler (Danny Aiello) who both commissions him and withholds the pay for “safe-keeping”:  “Hey, it’s your money. I mean, I’m just holding it for you, like a bank. Except better than a bank, ’cause you know banks always get knocked off. No one knocks off old Tony.”

There are drugs, guns & murder and young Mathilda (Portman) ending up in the care of the mysterious and virtuosic hit-man.  An obvious precursor to Chloe Moretz’s Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, Mathilda is less a cartoon than damaged goods taking up with a hit-man, jonesing to learn the trade and mete out some death of her own.  Besson’s handling of this relationship is not necessarily finely observed and realized–the young girl’s need for an older man is clear, Leon’s need for her maybe less so–and it sometimes veers into the queasily sexual.  Not that this film by any means contains or endorses pedophilia, but the much older Leon has a boyish affection for her, as though his childhood soul had been trapped by decades of professional violence and never allowed to mature.  Whatever the intention here, I would want to tell the “quirky” Frenchman who made the film that having a twelve year old put black lingerie over her clothes and sing “Like A Virgin” to an older man–even for laughs–is in poor taste.

The conflict of the film centers around Gary Oldman’s charismatically evil DEA agent, himself a reductive symbol for the dangerous and twisted world in which the protagonists live.  His need to tie-up the loose ends of his actions creates a pretext for much of the violence, especially so the climactic stuff at the film’s end.  Leon ultimately works because of its fine character performances and because–despite the queasiness–the movie is about the people in it and not the violence, lending the violence dramatic weight missing from so many films.  And contra the feckless abandon with which Kick-Ass was willing to embrace its pint-sized girly killer, even the mob boss in Leon seems to understand that a life of killing is not something one wants for a child, but rather security and a return to normalcy.

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The Watchers

Rupert Giles

To whom all watchers look for guidance.

This blog represents a new venture for me, as it is a dedicated blog for film and film criticism and reflection.  In addition to trying to stay relatively current with the movies you can find at local theaters, I would like to try and engage with older and more difficult films that the average person isn’t as interested in seeing.  In order to do this, as well as deepen my exposure to the world of film and have a little fun while I’m at it, I’m starting The Watchers, a group of friends interested in watching films off the beaten path and reflecting on them together as much or as little as they see fit.

Anyone can join The Watchers, but it helps if you know me personally (and live relatively close!) so we can actually watch movies together.  I’ve compiled this list of 50 films over at IMDb.  I’ve tried to select critically acclaimed films that I either haven’t seen or have only seen once and not with other people.  Also, as befits the title of my blog, I’ve tried to select thematically dark films.  I would most like to attract people of faith interested in reflecting on the films’ artistic and cultural significance in light of their faith.  I see potential for blog entries from The Watchers not only containing my reflections, but also possibly recorded conversations from group members and guest bloggers wanting to offer their two cents.

I should be up front about the fact that I am a Christian and therefore the Christian faith and the theological witness of the Christian Bible will most often serve as the guiding principles for the overall shape of the blog’s content and reflections.  That said, I would be excited to have anyone join in the conversation:  I affirm pluralism and charity in dialogue, yet retain that certain viewpoints are irreconcilable.

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