Latest outflow from the sluggish mainstream and the rushing tributaries:
Winter’s Bone. Debra Granik’s top-prize recipient at this year’s Sundance festival, a poky, low-key, somewhat parsimonious rural thriller with a simple set-up: if absent Dad, arrested for “cooking crank,” the new moonshine of the Ozarks, fails to show for his court date, the family stands to lose the house he signed over for bond, and so it falls to his eldest daughter, not to the two young ’uns or the vegetative mother, to track him down, one redneck lowlife after another. The cloak of backwoods secrecy, to say nothing of the dialect, is so thick that it’s difficult to determine where the threat might come from, or how, or why, and consequently difficult to share in the experience of the stoical seventeen-year-old who is at the center of every scene. We, far more than she, are in a figurative fog. But the atmosphere, even without literal fog, is also thick, no thanks to the greeny image or the arm-weary camerawork, and no need of the gratuitous skinning of a squirrel; and the authentic faces would appear to have been collected from the Depression photos of Dorothea Lange, including in a bit part a still recognizable Sheryl Lee, the murdered homecoming queen of Twin Peaks two decades ago, and including, too, the angelic Jennifer Lawrence, who blends in well in the lead role and only occasionally looks as though she could be a spokes-model for Pond’s Cold Cream. Whatever the resolution lacks in tension or excitement, it makes up in the macabre, a climax to remember. If the film overall deserves more than this short shrift, then maybe it deserved as well an advance press screening. Not that they lack faith in it, but that decision rests with its distributors. Your indomitable reviewer had to take his place in line on opening weekend.
Cyrus. “Edgy” indie comedy by the brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (“mumblecore” movers and shakers, makers of Baghead among others), the premise of which would be just as easy to imagine as a mainstream Will Ferrell vehicle: an oafish divorced lonelyheart (“I’m like Shrek”) thinks he may have found a new woman, only to find she shares her house with a portly territorial twenty-one-year-old son, milking his “night terrors” for all they are worth. The writing is nowhere as slick and glib as it would have had to be in the mainstream, going more for awkwardness and discomfort than for mirth. But it’s hard to credit any tactical ingenuity, any strategic subtlety, to a film whose opening scene has the hero’s ex-wife walk in on him masturbating in the bedroom, and whose idea of a meet-cute is to have him approached at a party while taking a whiz in the bushes: “Nice penis.” And the shaky hand-held camera and the jerky lurching zooms seem calculated to curb any willingness to laugh. They take the edge off the sharpness of observation, if not the edge off the “edginess.” Through it all, John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei remain sympathetic, or perhaps no more than pitiable, and Jonah Hill at last earns some respect for trying to be more than just, on behalf of young tubbies, Someone To Identify With.
I Am Love. The mad passion of a wealthy Milanese matron (Tilda Swinton, any defects in her subtitled Italian explained by her Russian origins) for the much younger chef with whom her son has entered a restaurant partnership. Thus, there’s a food-film ingredient from the shelf of Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate, Mostly Martha, and the like — a sensual awakening, for example, to a glistening plate of prawns, enclosing the heroine in her own personal spotlight — as well as a Chatterley-esque attunement to the world of flowers, berries, bugs. Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino exhibits a painstaking attention to detail — the weather, the light, the living spaces, the furnishings, the silent comings and goings of the servants — and he closely monitors emotional temperatures, gelid to red-hot. His direction is littered with fussy, prinking little touches that jump out at you rather than coalesce into a coherent style. And the running-in-place music of John Adams is an intermittent irritant.
The Killer Inside Me. Second screen version (after Burt Kennedy’s grindhouse one in 1976) of Jim Thompson’s kinky crime novel, kept in the original Fifties period, with the choirboyish Casey Affleck, and his quaky, croaky, pubescent voice, in the part of the psycho deputy sheriff of a West Texas small town, outwardly much less menacing than his predecessor in the part, Stacy Keach, and correspondingly less convincing. The slack narrative showcases unfollowable plotting, unintelligible dialogue, tin-pot psychology, savagely sadistic violence (in which director Michael Winterbottom is a full accomplice), oblivious Western swing music in the background, and a sickening finish to a sicko whole. Those who cannot resist the siren song of the spanked bare bottoms of Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson will be duly punished for their weakness.
Grown Ups. Five tired comic actors (Kevin James, Rob Schneider, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade, in approximate order of increasing lassitude), in a matchingly washed-out image, assemble for the funeral of their childhood basketball coach, panning for a few grains of middle-aged masculine truth and coming up completely empty, everything strained, forced, formular-ized into falsity. Not to be mistaken for Mike Leigh’s early, hilarious, truthful, and properly punctuated Grown-Ups. ■