Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Pairing — Atmospheric Winter Tales Of Terror

I’ll admit to being more interested films set in tropical climates or seriously urban settings. With Concrete Pillow as an exception, the Indianapolis mysteries I write are set in the three non-Winter seasons. That’s the usual way I approach novels and movies. With Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Winter’s Bone I’ve given in not just to cold but also to four hours of sadness and desolation. This isn’t a night of Rodgers and Hammerstein. What makes them worthwhile is unusual: strong, female characters who are not nearly as plentiful as they ought to be in the crime film genre. On the other hand, the two main characters are not bigger-than-life heroic or anti-heroic characters. They are not talented combatants. We’re not talking angry, someone with a personal vendetta like Lisbeth Salander or psychotic in the way the sexy, robotic killer Nikita is psychotic. These are characters whose personal sense of right and wrong drives the plots. They may be vulnerable, but they have spines of steel.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) has its detractors, and with good reason. The very last few minutes seem Bondian —just fine for Bond films — but a glaring, last minute change in style considering the rich, literary texture the film offers until then. Disappointing as those moments are, this is a fine film and an interesting match to Winter’s Bone. The cinematography, especially of the vast snow and ice-covered expanse of Greenland, is magnificent. Further, the cast is superb. In addition to a fine performance by Julia Ormond as Smilla, there are the expected high-level performances by all of the members of this mostly British cast, including Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Jim Broadbent and Robert Loggia. Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris are both able to add heft to the small, but vital roles they inhabit. Harris doesn’t have to say a word to intimidate everyone and everything around him. The problem for the bad guys is that Smilla won’t stop investigating the death of a young Inuit boy, a death that authorities have determined to be accidental. The investigation leads her not just to the facts surrounding the death, but a self-discovery that takes her life beyond her initial personal philosophy: “The only thing that makes me happy is mathematics.”

The film, based on the Danish book by Peter Hoeg called Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, is moving, thought provoking and suspenseful.There are times in Smilla’s Sense of Snow that will make your heart bleed. In Winter’s Bone, your heart will take a sustained beating. This is rural Missouri. It could have been southern Indiana or parts of Tennessee or many other impoverished areas of the South and Midwest. We see skinny dogs on chains tied to a post on grassless lawns, rusted barbecue grills and bent up house trailers. It’s a land of meth labs and angry, gun-toting men with repressed tongue-biting wives.

Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is the daughter of a meth cook who has either died or is fleeing from the law. The daughter is left to care for her much younger siblings as well as her mother who cannot even care for herself. Their home, not much but all they have, had been used as the father’s bail. And it is about to be taken from them. No money. No place to go. The assorted redneck blood kin won’t help. One of the most telling lines is a woman asking Ree why she is stirring up trouble: “Don’t you have a man to handle this?” Even if it would be easier to play the helpless female in a man’s world, Ree can’t do it. She has to do it because no one else will. She has to hope, because there is no alternative.

Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell and directed by Debra Granik, won a slew of awards including a Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards last year. I am unfamiliar with the actors cast in the supporting roles; but the compelling reality they created on screen is a testament to their considerable talent. They conveyed a world that I know exists, but one I want no part of.

For the first film, how about going with the ice flow. Pour some vodka over the rocks. I’d continue that with the second film as well, but if the atmosphere gets to you, consider adding some Mountain Dew to the vodka. No, don’t.

No comments: