Sunday, December 12, 2010

Beards of Bleak: THE ROAD, WINTER'S BONE

Look at these two fine, bearded gentlemen above: Viggo Mortenson (left), billed only as 'the man' -- a grizzled survivor of an unspecified global holocaust, traveling with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in John Hilcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2009 THE ROAD; and John Hawkes (right) is 'Teardrop'--a grizzled meth head slightly of a mind to protect his niece (Jennifer Lawrence) as she travels into the heart of meth belt code-of-silence darkness in Debra Granik's 2010 WINTER'S BONE. The two films have much in common: ravaged rural starkness, paternal anxiety, and them man-oh-manly beards, pointing and twisting under hawk noses. Teardrop and the Man are the cinema's 2009-10 beard combo (1), the best such combo since Moss and Plainview in 2007's THERE WILL BE BLOOD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (another Cormac adaptation), and this time, there's fewer words in the titles, even fewer in the scripts, which is hard to believe.

There's an awful responsibility that overtakes us, cinema do declare, when raising kids in a land rife with scorched earthiness, meth, limb-hacking, and squirrel skinning. Kids in horror and sci fi used to be possessed by demons. In the 1980s they hung around long-fingered aliens and quirky robots but were generally safe. Now kids have fallen from their endangered pedestal as beacons of Spielbergian light or position as 'other' to be feared, and become mere luggage, screaming cargo that must be protected from C.H.U.Ds, hillbilly paranoids, cannibalistic pedophile priests, and zombies if one is to avoid the agony of being branded a bad father and having to spend the rest of the film crying and staring at old family pictures. All one really wants to do is shoot, smoke, sniff, and sail away from life's burdens, but they have kids. In the 70s they could still do all that stuff, and just get a sitter. Now though, what if the sitter's a psycho or there's a fire? They can't relax even for a second. Gradually they go nuts from anxiety, the kind of nuts some meth or booze would handily cure.

BONE is the sleeper indie award winner this year, though first glances might make you sigh a BASTARD OUT OF GEORGIA RULE HOUNDDOG'S SWING BLADE RURAL JUROR poetic realism on the cheap kind of 'here we go faux-Faulknering' harmonicas and steel guitar-scored sigh. But, as I explained to my sentimentalism-wary lady friend when we watched it, even if all the signposts are the same that don't mean it's the same road. That's the mistake that made so many film scholars originally overlook Douglas Sirk! Underneath all that soap was a very dirty boy. But you had to scrub a little to uncover how deep that dirt went.

I'm sure by now you don't need me to tell you that WINTER'S BONE is beautifully photographed. Every image reminiscent of the lovely dust bowl portraits by Dorothea Lange, but in color and thrift shop winter couture, slow drip rainspouts, baleful-eyed horses, eerie drones and impeccable foley wind-swept periphery shrub rustling. The story itself is interesting, proving as did in DOMINO and JACKIE BROWN that bail bondsmanship is a fertile, relatively under-explored film subject. Dee (Lawence) has to forfeit her house to the bail bondsman if her meth cooker dad doesn't show in court so down the dirt hills trail she treads, asking tough questions of her hostile, meth-paraoid kinsfolk. As she's met by slammed doors and threats Dee begins to resemble the Phillip Marlowe of Tobacco Road, bravely digging where no one wants her to dig, taking a beating without flinching, hallucinating under quality pain killers, relentlessly traversing a mise en scene of desolate winter landscapes and druggy evasiveness. The men hide behind smoke and yellowed curtains, guns at the ready, hallucinating police cars in the thumbprints on the windows. Where male detectives in 40s noir found Venus flytrap perfumes overwhelming their war-torn senses, Lawrence finds tough, inscrutable men, all relatives to some degree or other, their brains half-fried, with violent tempers, coiled cottonmouth postures. If they have information she must suss it out but that takes time and their wives are listening in the next room with a shotgun under their aprons. Dee's knightly champion eventually emerges from Teardrop's twitchy shell, kinda... but drug users are notoriously slip-prone when it comes to metamorphoses.

'The Man' in THE ROAD, meanwhile, never doubts his princeliness, but he sure doubts the world's. He saves his last bullet to use on his son if they should ever fall into cannibal hands. Several times the kid has the gun pressed up against his head while danger looms, and one can't help but think of John Ford's STAGECOACH climax, with John Carradine's last shot aimed at the 'lady' as the Apaches draw closer. Fear for the virginity of your young 'uns and maidens can make you brave or make you weak and in the final bullet moment it's impossible to tell which is which. It's one thing to be courageous for yourself, another to be courageous with the life of a charge, a child. Viggo refuses to let his son risk his life in order to make friends, thus dragging the 'helicopter parent' principle into the post-apocalypse wasteland.

The main difference between Teardrop and the Man seems to lie in this approach. Still like a cobra, eyes cast low in a thousand yard stare, Teardrop's superiority lies in the cool uncle position. When he finds a stray strand of nurturing in his soul's muddy weave and a banjo is introduced you practically cry to see this man finally engage in something that's not potentially deadly or destructive. At that moment, you know Howard Hawks would have loved him.

So, without a reliable social order in place in either dirty outdoors film, the thematic question seems to be, when is life 'safe' for little children to frolic? Dee proves it never is, so fuck it, frolic anyhow. The Man thinks it will be safe 'later' - so 'the boy' gets carried hither and yon, like America getting the paranoid treatment from a stand-down military, like the boy is George Bush and Viggo is Dick Cheney, creating all sorts of problems with his paranoia and access to the inner ear of power. 

As trends in fathering in our modern society('s films) make clear, dads don't often feel the need to stick around --too much pressure. What makes Teardrop, in his deep sympathy with the shadows and evils of the world, a better dad than 'the Man'? Teardrop knows how to come at a room full of meth-addled hick gangsters; he knows when to shrink into the shadows and when to refuse to step out the car and put his hands on the hood. He's not afraid of dying and that's what enables him to better help out. Like most of the men in either film he can't wrap his head around a woman un-cowed by the threat of death and physical violence. He has no choice but to be impressed. Viggo's problem is that he doesn't respect bravery, since he has none, and so his son's fearlessness or his wife's (Theron, below, looking straight out of BONE), is dismissed by him as foolhardiness, while he cowers in the shrubs knowing only one thing, that he's right to do so.

I know I'm not alone in being grateful that WINTER'S BONE chooses to forgo the threat of sexual assault that seems to dominate most other hillbilly franchises. We don't get much of it in THE ROAD either, but the threat is always there (along with OS screaming), putting an uneasy Kung Fu grip on your throat. A similar heavy threat hangs all over BONE, but the whole sexual assault as worse than death thing doesn't factor, and I'm glad. As I've written on BL, I think we're reaching an ugly saturation point in that regard: it's become cheap shorthand to get the audience deeply disturbed and emotionally involved, but at what cost?

Another thing I'm glad BONE forgoes is sentimentalizing childhood innocence. Funny how the two things go hand in hand, as if innocence itself was a side effect of corruption rather than vice versa.  Both films examine the nature of emotional involvement, and of parenting and responsibility, and while both films tug at issues of bare life survival vs. the sweet joy of giving up, only BONE knows how to harness the beard, the wild man energy of the masculine.  THE ROAD paves the way, perhaps, in subtextually condemning the conservative 'my family uber alles' ethos, but only BONE takes that message all the way to the bottom of the family swamp, where the wild man lies, and dredges that deep man up.

As Robert Bly wrote in IRON JOHN:
"... going down through the water to touch the wild man at the bottom of the pond is quite a different matter. The being who stands up is frightening, and he seems even more so now, when corporations do so much work to produce the sanitized, hairless shallow man." (2)
That's poor Viggo in THE ROAD, a sanitized man, re-bearded, trying to be wild in a wild land, learning the role of the deep, dark masculine and getting it incorrect. No reflection on Viggo, of course, who showed he can bring that shit hardcore in the RINGS trilogy and HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. What I don't like is the head-on craftsmanshippy approach to the McCarthy novel --it gets it too right, maybe, to work. Teardrop on the other hand is the truly untamed wild man, the kind of guy that creeps you out at first but then somewhere along the way, not sure when, you start to admire him.

Isn't that so much better, children, than the other way around? 

1. Yeah, THE ROAD came out in 2009, but I didn't see it til last week, so what?
2. Vintage Books, NY, 1990 - Page 6

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