Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone is the best film about Northern Ireland that I've seen. Of course it isn't actually set in Northern Ireland, it's actually set in an Ulster Scots community in the Ozark Mountains. But the people who left Ulster for Appalachia two and a half centuries ago are virtually indistinguishable from the ones who stayed behind. As David Hackett Fischer shows in his book Albion's Seed, the Ulster Scots were the clannish border fighters who settled in Ulster around the time of the Plantations in Ireland (c. 1600), many of whom subsequently emigrated to the US in the mid eighteenth century. Jim Webb does a nice job describing the Ulster Scots in his book Born Fighting, explaining that these people were natural hunters and trackers who despised authority and who thus formed the backbone of the US Army in several wars.

This is the synopsis of the film from the movie's website. I don't think it gives too much away.

Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) sets out to track down her father, who put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. If she fails, Ree and her family will be turned out into the Ozark woods. Challenging her outlaw kin's code of silence and risking her life, Ree hacks through the lies, evasions and threats offered up by her relatives and begins to piece together the truth.

Part thriller, part atmospheric observation piece, Winter's Bone is a great piece of work. The mountains are beautifully shot, the performances are subtle and the mood is tense and claustrophobic. Everyone is related to everyone else in this small country community and there is no firm line between good and evil. Just like in rural Ulster the one thing you are taught when dealing with the law is that "whatever you say, say nothing." Ree's journey has a gothic, fairy tale aspect but it's very much grounded in grim twenty first century reality. The film is also much more disturbing & frightening than all those tedious slasher movies everywhere in the multiplexes.
If you want to understand Northern Ireland, ignore the Hollywood pap and watch Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday and Winter's Bone instead.