It's the Women vs. The Wilderness bracket this week, and it is gnarly AF. What's worse, skinning a squirrel or watching your whole family die? Cutting off the hands of your dead and Ozark-river soaked father's corpse, or stabbing a teenager to death with a 3 inch rusty blade? This is exactly why I'm such a fan of the Great Indoors.
Winter's Bone (2010)
Directed by: Debra Granik
Written by: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini (screenplay), Daniel Woodrell (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt
IMDB Synopsis: An unflinching Ozark Mountain girl hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father while trying to keep her family intact.
For a movie starring Baby J. Law in the performance that garnered her very first Oscar nom, I was really hoping I would like it more. Instead I got those familiar but unpleasant Kelly Reichardt vibes... if your movie isn't character driven and it isn't plot driven, then what's driving it? Landscape-driven stories are not a thing! Knowing how to skin a squirrel is not a substantial character trait!
To be fair, I think Winter's Bone was trying to be plot-driven, which was confusing since there were major plot holes and super important pieces of information left out until the very end that would've dramatically heightened the stakes if we'd had them sooner. I'm all for making the audience "work for it" and not just spoon-feeding details, but I spent most of this movie trying to figure out who was actually related to who and what was wrong with her mom and where the kid's school was located and if that horse ever got fed and why Thump Milton had so many shiny buttons on his vest. I get that it was supposed to be a sparse, stark atmosphere (just like the landscape, OOOOOOOH) but Jesus Christ it kind of just felt like I was watching J. Law go trick-or-treating to random meth dens and scowling at them a lot every time they told her "ye best not be pokin' around where ye ain't shouldn't be pokin' little missy" and then figuring out two scenes later that they were all related to her? Ugh.
It is truly a testament to the talent of J. Law that this movie was watchable at all. Not only was she able to bring some reasonable and realistic humanity in a world full of melodramatically aggressive adults, but I also applaud her for finding incredible little hidden nuggets of humor in an otherwise humorless tale.
...But tbh the real dark horse, scene-stealer for me was when J. Law crashes a good old fashioned Ozarks party and stumbles into real-life blues singer Marideth Sisco, who croons this haunting ballad:
The Nightingale (2018)
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin
IMDB Synopsis: Set in 1825, Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.
HOLY SHIT this entire movie should come with a massive trigger warning - in the first 15 min, the main character is raped twice and then watches her husband and tiny little adorable round-faced BABY get murdered in front of her. Yeah. The baby dies. It's not my favorite.
It's also about an hour too long. I was totally invested on her journey into the uncivilized jungles of Australia to track down the men who wronged her and have her revenge - which she does get, a little - but after murdering the Baby-Killing Asshole, suddenly all her trauma seems to catch up with her, and she completely freezes in the face of The Rapist Asshole.
On the one hand, that's some ballsy writing: It's tragic but it's actually super realistic. On the other hand, the narrative thread totally fizzles out from there, and with little to no redemption. This young woman has endured SO MUCH at this point, and literally murdered a man in the jungle with her bare hands and a small, rusty knife - and now, NOW she freezes? And then breaks down? And then her beautifully acted Indigenous companion that she has learned she has more in common with since she's an Irish prisoner and they both hate the British and he speaks his native tongue and she speaks Gaelic and they have some really fucking beautiful moments of solidarity, HE is the one who goes on to avenge the men for her? And she just, like... checks out? And I get it, Billy had reasons for wanting his revenge too, but I wanted to see her go Kill Bill on those motherfuckers! I felt like they were setting us up for a wilderness road-trip take on Girl With The Dragon Tattoo except there was no revenge-rape scene. There was just a lot of getting raped. :(
Also, despite there being some outstanding little moments that I've never seen in a film before, there were others that just straight up did not make logical sense:
- she keeps waking up with her breastmilk leaking through her dress, a constant (and physically painful) reminder that her baby is dead
- the Irish/Indigenous comparison (I think we can all agree that in the overall scope of human history, black/brown/indigenous folks have suffered far more than white folks, but there was a moment in history where the Irish were also treated quite barbarically).
- utterly haunting Gaelic folk songs
- Clare finally has her confrontation with The Main Asshole guy by barging into the middle of some kind of soldier luncheon (??) and starts this great monologue about how the woman he raped is DEAD and you can't kill what DOESN'T DIE and while it's a great moment but I'm also just like...?? Why the fuck aren't these soldier guys stopping her??
- And then she fucking SINGS A SONG??? And everyone just lets her?? Again, it was a beautiful moment, but it did NOT make any sense at all?? I'm sorry, but it completely took me out of the whole moment.
- Billy gets straight up SHOT IN THE STOMACH POINT BLANK and then rides a horse for several hours, DANCES on the fucking beach, and does not die?? I'll be the first to admit I don't know exactly how gunpowder works, but...??? Pretty sure you'd fucking die??
Overall, I loved seeing Kent's handiwork when it came to Women vs. Wilderness. Her protagonist was resilient AF - but unlike J. Law, she actually was a fully-formed character (and not just J. Law in a thinly veiled disguise). Despite the plot holes and moments that missed the mark, this movie was beautifully crafted. Way too long and fucking traumatizing and I'll absolutely never watch it again, but yeah, it was pretty well-done.
And the winner is...