Although most film noirs take place in an urban setting, the “dark city,” Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) shows how the noir vision can thrive almost anywhere – it is an effectively written and directed “rural noir.”
You could hardly get more rural than the bleak Missouri backwoods where Winter’s Bone takes place. Yet it shares with the classic urban film noir the same atmosphere of generalized corruption, the same sense of living in a fallen world. (See The Big Heat, L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, or pretty much any other noir that comes to your mind.) In these classic noirs, there is usually some sort of underlying criminal conspiracy, something that almost everyone is a part of, but no one will talk about to outsiders for fear of getting rubbed out. In Winter’s Bone, the conspiracy of silence has to do with meth-cooking, the contemporary equivalent of brewing moonshine. There is also corruption of the family. In the world of Winter’s Bone, everyone is related by blood or marriage to almost everyone else.
As I have written elsewhere, one of the key figures in film noir is the “innocent investigator.” Classic examples of the innocent investigator include Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, Ella Raines in Phantom Lady, Kim Hunter in The Seventh Victim, or – a more recent male example – Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet. The loss of innocence is generally connected to a discovery of how corrupt the world really is. In Winter’s Bone, the innocent investigator is a teenage girl played by Jennifer Lawrence (above), investigating the disappearance of her father. As a teenage girl seeking justice in a harsh world for the death of a father, she is linked to another protagonist in another key film of 2010, the 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. But that’s a subject for another column.