To say that I loved The Hours the first time I watched it would be a lie. I saw it when I was 14-years-old and I didn’t understand it at all. My pubescent brain couldn’t quite grasp the effects of depression, the effects of sacrifice and above all else, what “happiness” truly means.
It would be another ten years before I began to understand the film’s significance. I was floored by its honesty and transparency of the human condition. I was so deeply affected by it that I had “always the hours” tattooed on my ribs.
So let me try to explain why, at the age of 24, I walked into a tattoo parlor with my best friend, and said “ink this quote on me kind sir.”
The Hours, starring Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge) and Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice) focuses on the lives of three women in three different decades, in a single day of their lives. In that one day, their lives become clear to them, in the most devastating ways.
My mentor in acting school used to say that all of the best productions cause “retina burns” in the viewer. When asked to define this phenomenon, he explained that “retina burns” are unforgettable moments, like when you stare at the sun for too long and it’s imprinted on everything you see in brilliant colors.
Linda Blair crab-walking backward down a set of stairs in The Exorcist - that’s a retina burn. The Godfather, Part II - when young Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) sees the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet at the prow of the Titanic. Jack Nicholson baring his teeth and growling, “Heeeere’s Johnny!” Paul Newman lifting his fingertip to the side of his nose in The Sting. Ian McKellen slamming that prop staff into the ground and bellowing, “You! Shall not! Pass!” Lucille Ball with her mouth full of chocolate.
So let’s talk about Winter’s Bone. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games), young as she is, has already managed a few retina burns in her career. I’m late to the party with Winter’s Bone I know, but I now understand the slew of nominations and awards that have been attributed to this film.
Young Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is the oldest child in her family at seventeen. Her father is an absent deadbeat, her mother too depressed to function. When their illustrious patriarch fails to keep a court date, the bank threatens to seize the family home in place of bond. Ree embarks on a quest to find her father, save the house, and keep the children together.
Of course, this is easier said than done. The adventure necessitates a sordid romp through the world of an impoverished Missouri coal mining community peppered with drug users and dealers. Chain-link fences, barking dogs, meth-skinny she devils and redneck bars help to complete the picture. Debra Granik (Stray Dog, Down to the Bone), who wrote and directed the screenplay from a novel by Daniel Woodrell (Ride With the Devil), takes a heartbreaking yet hopeful look at the stark world of low-income families settled in the Ozarks.
David Denby of The New Yorker dubbed the piece “one of the great feminist works in film”. While I cannot necessarily agree with this assessment, I can certainly understand it.
Granik and her creative partner Rosellini have done much to frame the story and players using gender as an overarching tool. While the male characters aren’t seen to possess much integrity, they are arguably the ones who “get things done”, putting Lawrence’s Ree at a distinct disadvantage and making her triumph the greater.
Granik’s background encourages audiences to assign feminist overtones to her work, especially since according to this great article in the New York Times, “she studied documentary film history at Brandeis University and became active in the feminist and democratic media movements of the early ’80s”. It seems her Washingtonian parents raised her with left-liberal sensibilities too.
I should admit that at some point, I grew weary of the whole, “Girl, your daddy ain’t nowhere to be found, and you’d best stop lookin’ if you know what’s good for you” trope, since it’s employed ad nauseum. But toward the end of the film, it all culminated, (read: paid off) in one of the most arresting retina burns in my memory. Spoilers below.
The remains of Jessup Dolly are finally located at the bottom of a lake in the middle of the night. Ree, needing to bring proof to the police of her father’s demise, cuts off his lifeless hands with a chainsaw. That’s right. My retina burn? Jennifer Lawrence in the grip of one convulsive, horrified sob as she reaches beneath the water to get the job done.
The dark, gritty, moody feel of Winter’s Bone is just perfect for this harvest season, especially if you live someplace cold enough to bury yourself in a furry throw on the couch. Grab the DVD, spike your cinnamon tea with a splash of whiskey and settle in!