Los Angeles: City of No Surprises

Everyone, including the writer/director, producer, and stars of the film, had figured Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone a long shot in all the Academy Awards categories for which it was nominated last night–Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay (from the novel by Daniel Woodrell).  Nevertheless, it was particularly depressing to see this riveting narrative of a young woman searching for her father, a parole-jumping meth batcher in rural Missouri, lose the Best Adapted Screenplay prize to Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network.

The latter was a smart movie, largely because Sorkin found a useful collaborator in director David Fincher (Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac, etc.), an expert in the depiction of monomaniacs who does not suffer from Sorkin’s melodramatic streak.  Much of The Social Network’s power inheres in its absolute refusal to make its characters likeable: Fincher’s reserve allows him to remain fascinated with their obsessive and self-destructive behavior without ever softening into identification with it.  His characteristic distance–in this film, even a coldness– is a feat Sorkin (himself a recovering crack addict) tried to achieve but couldnt’ sustain in his depiction of the West Wing’s recovering alcoholic character Leo McGarry.

Arrested for possession in 2001, Sorkin noted last fall that “the hardest thing I do every day is not take cocaine.”  So while The Social Network is not a story about addiction and recovery,  Sorkin’s capture of the Best Adapted Screenplay award last night is.  In fact, it’s one of Hollywood’s oldest and favorite stories: successful rehabilitation after a drug-induced fall.

Not so for the drug story that animates Granik’s film.  Winter’s Bone is interesting largely for the ways in which it is a film about drugs that refuses to be about addiction, which is probably why it couldn’t win any big prizes last night.  Instead, the Ozark mountain meth economy forms the backdrop to the noir-style bildungsroman of protagonist Ree Dolly.  Crank, weed, and alcohol are woven into the narrative like the hills, trees, and rocks that fill the long shots.  Just as it has in the Iowa towns discussed in Nick Reding’s Methland, meth has become one more fiber in the fabric of the community.  The question of why some people use or don’t, or deal or don’t, is irrelevant to their lives and to the story.

In their thoughtful treatment of the Missouri backcountry where Winter’s Bone takes place, Michael Moon and Colin Talley characterize the area as a “shatter zone”–a “borderland…to which members of subject or refugee populations migrated in large numbers to escape the pressures of the state and/or the capitalist economies through which the state exerted itself.”  Within this “wild” space, drugs, like the natural world, act as a structuring force whose presence shapes communities and their norms rather than instantiating personal transformations.

Not much scenery to chew on there.  In his post last month on “Rehab TV,Points contributing editor Brian Herrera had urged readers to look past the now conventional deployment of addiction as an “instantiating event” within televisual narrative to see the larger social dynamics its flashy arc obscures.  Again, it’s not surprising that Hollywood couldn’t do this, but if readers of this blog are interested in that endeavor, they may find in Winter’s Bone a good tutorial.

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