I’d recommend three recently-watched films, each of which plays with the structure and function of crime narratives in ways that intriguingly reframe the romanticization common to the genre. All are good, but I’ll start with the least successful and work my way up to one I thought was kind of fantastic.
Winter’s Bone suffers in comparison to the novel, and to the other films below, but its country noir approach is fresh and the acting is often excellent. Debra Granik’s film (from Daniel Woodrell’s novel) follows Ree (Jennifer Dolly), eldest daughter and de facto parent — her daddy, a meth-cooking backwoods low-level thug, has gone missing, and her mama’s not all there. Daddy disappeared while out on bond, so now the county’s come calling to collect on the house, and Ree starts walking, bumping up against extended family and complete indifferent dismissal. She bumps a few times too often and she gets bumped back. If you pare away the trailers and junk-strewn yards and the tall firs and the deep twang of the hills, if you boil this thing down to plot, it’s a little too patly familiar: what seems eccentrically wondrous (the young kid at the heart of the film, the new context, Granik’s commitment to a grimmer visual and narrative realism) seems more like a set of new drapes in a very dusty room. The protagonist talks tough, finds a more-violent sidekick, wanders in where she shouldn’t, takes her lumps. She could be any of the versions of Marlowe. In the novel, there’s more room for a linguistic razzle-dazzle that upends and reconceives these noir trappings, but the movie in my opinion loses a lot of the language and the conventional structure and rhythms come to the fore. Still, Jennifer Dolly is really good, and John Hawkes (as violent sidekick Teardrop) is phenomenal–he’s stripped down to the skull and vicious seems to seep from his skin, and every scene he walks in to he owns.
Bone does its best for a kind of grimness–no glorious vistas, no stylized violence–but in addition to its noir trappings it’s steeped in the mythology of Appalachian trash culture. I think Granik’s aiming for dirty real, but even with a coat of grime and a rusted stationwagon in the yard the film’s got a romanticized (capital-T Tragic, but still romanticized) vision of the folks in the hills. The documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites taps its toes to that rhythm, but then joyously flips the bird and seems to celebrate the raucous anarchy of its family of (often-doomed, never dull) protagonists, and then it steps again to the side and ignores Hank Williams III (who’s on the soundtrack *and* in the film, praising the Whites) to give an unblinking view of the desperation, the loss, the destructiveness… and then jumps up again, refuses to judge, lets Mamie get stinking drunk and sing karaoke and cackle at the camera. This is not backcountry Mythic Tragedy, nor easy Duke-boys redneck outlaw celebration, nor…. it was always compelling, and always entertaining, and I found at the end strangely sympathetic. It’s really hard to understand the Whites who show up and show off here, and they can be equally annoying whether behaving like shits or whining about the consequences . . . but the film pushes against any attempt to box them into a familiar narrative structure. They do seem a bit trapped in their lives, but they’re not trapped in our judgments (celebratory or scornful) of those lives.
My favorite of this lot is Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, a film that mashes up a snail-paced trademark Romanian realism (watching a guy watch a guy for long stretches, settling in to watch the protagonist eat a meal) and some whipsmart stylized dialectics that engage with abstractions of metaphor, the evolution of language, and the function of the police and the state. It is a conventional police procedural: Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a workaday detective, tasked with following some teens who are definitely smoking and may be dealing hashish. He’s beginning to suspect the target is not any kind of criminal mastermind. I don’t want to say much more — and I’ll warn you again that this is often very slow, but I found even these long stretches — Cristi walking after someone else, from neighborhood to neighborhood under slate skies; Cristi knocking on office doors, trying to get various colleagues in the bureaucracy to help him out with some info from files here and there — compelling. And there’s never any big moments, no action scenes, no violence whatsoever. . . this is low-level crime, and even that (as Cristi argues) is not what it seems. But these conversations: there are three key ones, and they feel at first tangential, but by the climactic final dialogue you realize that Porumboiu is playing with our expectations and making a strange, wonderful argument about our vision of policework. (And even as I’m emphasizing slow, I’d reframe that to note the director’s bone-dry but precise wit. This film isn’t quite as funny as his prior 12:08 East of Bucharest, but particularly in its conclusion it is sly and witty.) I loved this.