Crime stories, sort of

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.

13 thoughts on “Crime stories, sort of”

  1. re: Winter’s Bone. ree might have been any version of marlowe but she is a girl, which i think is kind of cool. and most of the people who interact with her are women, which is kind of cool, too. in fact, the role of women as gatekeepers is interesting both in the novel and in the film. true, it is the men who hold the (violent) strings of the (violence) game, but the women seem to be the ones who hold it together, create and constitute the connective tissue, allow the blood to circulate (and, arguably, invigorate). the world of this film is a world of broken masculinity, for sure. but, for once, you see through the eyes of women — strong, willful, tough women. the broken guys sit in the background or in other rooms, mostly hidden from view. this seems to me an important stylistic touch.

    you get a sense that maybe sonny, ree’s young brother, will be better off than those other guys. or not. but you get this sense.

    what bothered me, the one thing that never stopped making the film jar in my mind, was that ree is so clean scrubbed. how about a couple of black teeth? less perfect skin? at the very least oily hair? kids who live like that don’t look so perfect.

  2. (we are now on the latest version of wordpress. when i have time i’ll check to see if there’s a plugin that handles search better)

    (okay, that only took a minute: if you do a search for “winter’s bone” now you get this post. i’m done fixing things for the next three years.)

  3. watched half of police, adjective last night and was so mesmerized that when simon touched me to get my attention i didn’t even notice it. but he persisted, and i stopped the stream. “what?” “why are we watching this?” “what do you mean”?””it’s like watching the wall.” “the wall?” “yeah, the wall. watching paint dry would be like Lethal Weapon compared to this.” “i take you are not enjoying it.” “it’s the most boring thing i have ever seen.”

    needless to say, we stopped watching. it was, after all, simon’s birthday. during the getting-ready-for-bed phase he really, really wanted to know why i was enjoying this to him incomprehensibly boring film. “it’s the shoes,” i said. “the shoes?” “yeah, the noise the shoes make. it’s really mesmerizing to me.” “okay.” “also, the pace.” “glacial.” “yeah, i know, but i like it.”

    and this is all i have to say about this movie so far. i’ll watch the rest when we are done (non) celebrating simon’s advancing age.

  4. Mesmerizing is exactly it, G. (Now that his birthday’s over… the hell with Simon.) Nah… I understand the ennui. Other friends have said the same. But I just really dug it…

    I think the movie always worked on two levels for me. One, there was the narrative of investigation — watching, which implies seeing something; pursuing, which implies catching something. Police as a verb, a set of activities which lead to a set of conclusions. And I was really sucked in at that level, almost a real-time engagement with the (dull) mechanics of policing. And yet there is the adjective, which reframes the word most commonly in terms of police state: a dull endless surveillance, a chain of pointless exercises in bureaucratic process, leading (perhaps) to actions which are oppressive (to the actor and the ones acted upon) and really meaningless. That dialectic fueled my rapture here — I just kept buzzing with that tension in my head. And “rapt” is really the word; I just was lost in this film, and delighted in those moments of dialogue which (dialogically) interrupted the (in)action by foregrounding such linguistic debates…

  5. i took the conversation between cristi and his wife about the lyrics of the song (metaphors? symbols?) to be a throwaway. should i listen to it again?

  6. Well… it does set up Cristi’s precision about language, and its relation to reality. I also was (tenuously) connecting it to the work of the film itself. (Although, to be honest, I’m ALWAYS inclined to see texts as talking about their own status as texts.) … I should probably watch it again.

  7. finished. a great film. really subtle and beautiful. i recommend it, but make sure you have plenty popcorn to eat during the long stakeouts!

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