Tag Archives: Winter’s Bone

‘Angels Crest’: A sober tribute to the precarious art of parenting

Thomas Dekker in Angels Crest

Don’t be fooled by Thomas Dekker’s boyish good looks—the long, effeminate eyelashes and angular, delicate lines of his face can contort into expressions of terror, shock, confusion and profound sorrow. Mr. Dekker’s unforced performance as a grieving and guilt-ridden young father is the driving force behind the gritty, unrelenting drama that is “Angels Crest.”

Directed by Gaby Dellal and adapted from the eponymous novel by Leslie Schwartz, “Angels Crest” is named for a small town nestled in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The wintery, rural landscape and dark storyline are akin to Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010), but “Angels Crest’s” theme of childhood death within a close-knit community shares more similarities to Atom Egoyan’s widely praised 1997 film, “The Sweet Hereafter.” Also based on a novel (by Russell Banks), “The Sweet Hereafter” explores the conflicting sentiments of the townsfolk after nearly all of its children are killed in a tragic bus accident. “Angels Crest” also deals with the loss of a child, but examines grief and guilt on a more intimate level, directing its focus on the dynamics of young parenthood.

The aforementioned Mr. Dekker (“Foreverland,” “Kaboom”) plays Ethan, whose seemingly innocent but thoughtless actions play a role in the tragic death of his son, Nate. On the morning of the first snow of the season, Ethan takes Nate for an early morning drive with plans for some serious snow-man building and ends up parked at the edge of the wilderness. Ethan is lured from his truck by the sight of a herd of deer, and leaves his son sleeping in his car-seat with the heat turned up and doors locked. Ethan returns after a short time to find that Nate is no longer in the truck, and a panic-induced sequence of events soon unfolds with a sense of urgency so strong, it feels as though it is happening in real time. The town’s residents, including Angie (Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino), the owner of the diner, and Ethan’s best friend, Rusty (Joseph Morgan, from television’s “The Vampire Diaries”) form the search team that struggles desperately to find Nate alive.

When Cindy, Nate’s estranged, alcoholic mother (played by Lynn Collins, who starred alongside Al Pacino in 2004’s“The Merchant of Venice”), arrives at the scene, her shear sense of panic is portrayed with an brutal realism that can be painful to witness, even from our safe distance in the movie theater. Cindy desperately calls Nate’s name, and demands to know why the search party isn’t doing the same; in one chilling moment, Cindy scrawls Nate’s name in red lipstick on a car window, as if the scarlet red letters would serve as a beacon for his safe return. When Ethan discovers Nate’s body a mere quarter mile from his truck, Ms. Dellal’s sensitive directional eye does not linger on the child’s lifeless form, and instead chooses to express the unspeakable horror through Ethan. As Ethan carries his son’s lifeless form and howls into the unresponsive rocky bluffs, one cannot help but recall the wails of sorrow from Shakespeare’s King Lear, as he cradles his dead daughter, Cordelia, and scorns stoic bystanders for their impassiveness—“O, you are men of stone.”

Nate’s death causes a fissure among the residents of Angels Crest between those who blame Ethan  and those who pity him. This conflict causes tension within the town’s most intimate relationships, especially between gay couple Jane (played by Golden Globe-nominee Elizabeth McGovern of PBS’s “Downton Abbey”) and Roxie (Kate Walsh, of television’s “Private Practice).  The level-head but compassionate Jane sympathizes with Nate, and remains his loyal friend despite the misgivings of Roxie, who accuses Ethan of being an irresponsible father. Charges are eventually pressed against Ethan for criminal negligence, and Jeremy Piven (television’s “Entourage”) plays Jake, the prosecuting lawyer who we learn has also suffered the loss of his child. Thankfully, “Angels Crest” does not succumb to the banalities of a courtroom drama, and remains an intense character study for the effects of extreme grief and guilt without falling into clichés of the genre.

Some dramas that deal with the death of a loved one have characters that conform to the strict rigidity of the Kubler-Ross model for the Five Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Ms. Dellal spurns such conventions. Ethan and Cindy articulate their mourning with a surprising fluidity that lends a realistic and visceral blow to our judgment. Just as we begin to pity Ethan for his loss, we rebuke him for playing violent video games with his buddies the night after the funeral. Likewise, we wonder whether Cindy’s rampant alcoholism is her way of mourning, or if she is using Nate’s death as an excuse to drink herself into a stupor. And, when Ethan supplicates his naked body to the frozen, snowy ground so that he might experience the last dying moments of his son, one begins to wonder why blame and guilt is not a sixth stage of grief. Reflection and loneliness are sometimes added to versions the Kubler-Ross model, and are conveyed in the quietly devastating final scenes of “Angels Crest.”

Any parent will no doubt be haunted by “Angels Crest,” both by the fearlessly vulnerable performance of Mr. Dekker and the troubling questions posed about parental awareness/consciousness. In fear of spoiling some small but crucial plot points, I will only say that if Ethan bears any responsibility for Nate’s death, it is because he underestimates his son’s capabilities. The level of awareness that parents must have concerning the actions and abilities of their children must be so vast and yet so acute that the mere thought of the enormity of that scope of cognizance can take one’s breath away. “Angels Crest” is an unflinching study of sorrow; but above all, it is a sober tribute to the precarious art of parenting.

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‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Fish Tank’: Cinema’s subtle female avengers

I had recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s all-time-downer-classic, “Cries and Whispers,” for the second time when an article critiquing the latest phenomenon of young, sexualized and violent female characters in film appeared in the New York Times. A.O Scott and Manohla Dargis cite “Kick-Ass,” “Sucker Punch,” and the “Millennium” trilogy as films with young women who express themselves either through superpowers, sexuality, or heinous violence.  In “Cries and Whispers,” film nearly forty years old, I realized that the three sisters essentially express their repressed emotions in almost this same exact manner (save the superpowers, perhaps).  The only difference is that the violence is self-inflicted and the sexuality is merely hinted through gestures, sidelong glances, and the occasional touch and kiss.

My point is that it is possible to convey the “complex intertwinings of sex and violence” without female exploitation and special effects.  Furthermore, we still see examples, few they may be, of young women who assert their power through more multi-faceted and subtle means. Mr. Scott and Ms. Dargis justly but briefly mention these films and characters, I would like to expand on their observations.  Two standout heroines who broke the mold of ass-kicking, gun-slinging girls were Ree in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Mia in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.”  In “Winter’s Bone,” Ree exudes her power over others—men included—neither through sexuality or violence; her voice barely even raises above a low whisper, save for one crucial moment.  Mia, although a decidedly more brazen presence than Ree, articulates her very fraught emotions through the silence and fluidity of dance.

Both Mia and Ree do share some interesting similarities with the women of “Kick-Ass” and “Sucker Punch,” such as the pattern of what Mr. Scott calls “reassuring and creepy” father figures.  These are men who take young, vulnerable girls under their wing and proceed to sexualize them and/or persuade them into violent action.  Mia perceives Conor, her mother’s boyfriend, as father figure, but is also attracted to him, a fact that Conor eventually takes full advantage of.  What is most disturbing about Ms. Arnold’s depiction of their relationship is that initially, Conor’s actions can be viewed as either extremely inappropriate or utterly innocent.  When Mia falls asleep on the couch, Conor carries her like a baby to her room, lays her on the bed and takes of her pants, only to lift the covers over her legs and up to her shoulders, tucking her in.  The “creepy” factor is definitely there, but also the possibility of a paternal figure.  Ree and Teardrop share a similarly complex relationship, minus the sexual innuendo, although the threat of violence is certainly there at first.  Teardrop is the brother of her missing father, and despite his skinny, hangdog demeanor, he is one scary guy.  We are first introduced to him as he ambles down the staircase of his house, still in his pajamas.  A cup of coffee is placed on the table in front of him and he hunches down and slurps the coffee, hands-free, hinting at his animal tendencies and rage.  When Ree, who has come to inquire about the location of her father, asks one question too many, he lunges out of his chair and grabs Ree by the side of her head, not hitting her, but hurting her all the same. As the film progresses, Teardrop will not only become Ree’s only ally, but the one member of her immediate family aside from her younger siblings who loves and protects her.  These two important male figures in the lives of Mia and Ree prove to be more intricately drawn than the “reassuring or creepy” type that Mr. Scott depicts—they are a disturbing embodiment of both.

Mia, and even the ever-stoic Ree, also personify the “female rage” that Mr. Scott describes and take their own brand of revenge against abusive men. Mia’s revenge against Conor’s emotional and sexual abuse is especially frightening because she demonstrates that her reckless abandon goes beyond merely head-butting other teenagers.  In a bizarre but terrifying sequence, Mia kidnaps Conor’s daughter, snatching her right off her scooter and forcing her to march to cliffy seashore, where she nearly drowns.  Mia may not take an axe to Conor a la Lisbeth Salander, but she hits him where it hurts the most by invading his personal family life and staining his daughter’s innocence. Speaking of Lisbeth’s revenge on her father,  Ree also, if more symbolically, takes her own form of gruesome revenge on her already dead father not with a axe, but with a chainsaw. Ree is certainly more sympathetic to her absent father, whom she clearly still loves.  So when Ree grasps her father’s dead hands through the murky water in which his body has been dumped, and is handed a chainsaw, which she must use to cut off those hands as proof of his death,  it is a much more grueling and horrifying act than Lisbeth’s attempt at patricide.

The taciturn Ree a stark contrast to the foul-mouthed Mindy/Hit Girl of “Kick-Ass.”  Ree’s might is measured by the force and consequences of her actions and, even more so, by the thoughtfulness of her silence.  She answers every question after a long stretch of painstaking silence; you can almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Ree’s one verbal catharsis is blunt, relentless, and free of expletives.  She stridently bellows the name of the town patriarch—“THUMP MIL-TON!”—over and over again, her cries intermixing with the groaning of the cows of the auction house to where she has tracked him down.  Ree knows she will not get a reaction out of him, but she continues to holler those three syllables with dogged conviction. Ree’s verbal torrent will have grim consequences, and she knows this, and is not afraid.  When it counts, Ree uses her words, and uses them fervently.

With Mia we encounter the opposite trait: a ribald, vituperative and sometimes dangerous teenager who spits out the coarsest obscenities as if it’s her own secret language.  Above all things, Mia is a kinetic being, although her physicality is not of the action-heroine variety, such is the case with the girls of “Sucker Punch.”  An aspiring hip-hop dancer, Mia is constantly in motion, whether practicing moves alone in an empty room of an abandoned high-rise or prowling the dingy, drab streets of her town.  Mia’s physical grace is the reason why her most defining moment in “Fish Tank” is devoid of words altogether.  In a silent but tense moment of alternating confrontation and empathy, Mia and her mother dance together—not side by side, not in a loving mother-daughter embrace, but facing each other, toe-to-toe, an uncanny mirror image:

(Sorry about the weird subtitles)

Ingmar Bergman would beg to differ, but sadly, you need a bit more than cries and whispers nowadays to get by in the movie land of sexed-up-women-with-weapons. So, you foul-mouthed, pre-sexual yet inappropriately erotic superhero; you mercurial, mohawked, axe-wielder; you sword-swinging, scantily-clad prisoners of a misogynistic psycho-ward/alternate reality–Ree and Mia would like you to know that all a girl needs to get by in this cruel world is the good sense to know when to make your voice heard, and some sweet dance moves.  And perhaps, in dire circumstances, to be used only as an expression of deeply repressed female anger and grief, a chainsaw.

Work cited:

Scott, A.O., and Manohla Dargis. “Gosh, Sweetie, That’s a Big Gun.” New York Times 27 April 2011: MT1. Print.