Are demons just the same
Reviews of two films: Winter’s Bone and Black Swan
The Academy Award nominations were announced last week and while admittedly not an avid fan of these ceremonies, it seems to this outsider that they are constantly inventing new categories… They appear to have adopted the corporate mantra of infinitely increasing dividends. The ceremonies themselves have become so bloated that half the categories don’t even make it to the 3+ hour show and are relegated a lesser, brown carpet affair during the afternoon. Having said that, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have somehow missed a golden opportunity to initiate a new category this year… Dark, Bleak and Depressing Motion Picture. In an earlier era of cinematic history there was, of course, the genre known as film noir:
Film Noir (literally ‘black film or cinema’) was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of how ‘dark’, downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theatres following the war.*
And perhaps my suggestion is merely an extension or modern-day descendent of this genre. Either way, the two most recent films I’ve seen would have been shoe-ins for nomination in this suggested new category. In fact, Winter’s Bone and Black Swan would easily make it to my top 25 darkest, bleakest, most depressing films I’ve ever seen. Darkness is not difficult to portray – but doing so within a well crafted, engaging film that somehow keeps you glued to your seat instead of out the door or (in the case of watching winter’s Bone on DVD at home) channel surfing for Seinfeld reruns is another matter. The main characters in both films were driven by demons, real and perceived but equally omnipotent.
Winter’s Bone, co-written and directed by Debra Granik and based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell is the story of a dysfunctional family in a in dreary and poverty-stricken, dysfunctional rural Ozark Mountain Missouri town. The entire population is either making, selling, and/or addicted to crystal methamphetamine or is suffering the consequences of the devastation that it inevitably brings. Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (played wrenchingly by Jennifer Lawrence) struggles to hold her broken family together, caring for her younger brother and sister and mentally ill mother after her drug dealing father abandons them. In addition to holding it together in survival mode, Ree must solve the mystery of her dad’s disappearance or literally risk losing the roof over their heads due to foreclosure. In a dark and ironic twist on typical Hollywood themes however, a “happy ending” can only be had if his disappearance is a result of his death and she can prove it. In Winter’s Bone the demons are ubiquitous and relentless from the first frame to the closing credits.
The demons in Black Swan (directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler) lurk thinly disguised in the background of the upper West Side of Manhattan. More specifically they dance inside the psyche of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), newly crowned prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, as she is selected to play the lead in Swan Lake for the season’s opening production at Lincoln Center. The role is challenging in that is requires the performer to embrace both the pure and innocent nature of the White Swan Odette, as well as the sinister, evil temperament of her nemesis Odile, the Black Swan. Sayers herself the young, naïve and rising star is well suited to portray the White Swan but is slowly engulfed and haunted by the cut-throat, dark and competitive world behind the curtain. While difficult to watch as I frequently squirmed in my seat, the plot is cleverly constructed so the viewer is never quite certain whether Nina Sayers’ dark perceptions are real or imaginary.
On the surface Winter’s Bone and Black Swan have little in common other than the fact that they both focus on the plight of a young female heroine. The schism between the poverty of the Ozarks and upper middle class New York City is indeed wide. But strange as it may seem I can imagine Ree Dolly and Nina Sayers might feel an unspoken bond if ever they were to meet.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Mary F. for picking up my geography gaff that was contained in the Late City Edition of Opinion8d2. Winter’s Bone was set in the Ozark Mountains but the state was Missouri, not Kentucky as previously stated.