Double Feature

While not quite the accidental double feature I ran into a few weeks ago with Catfish and The Social Network, I saw a pair of movies this weekend that share an uncommon type of protagonist. Both are a bit off the beaten path and thus don't really have a ton of mainstream appeal, but they're both worth watching...

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the third and (for the moment) final movie in Stieg Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy". It has the unfortunate reputation of being the worst of the three films, but while I can certainly see where that comes from, I think the problem lies more with the source material than the films. Which is not to say that the source material is bad or anything, just that this film and the second film are really part of a single whole. The first film made for a great introduction and featured a solid, self-contained story. The two sequels are intertwined. You can't watch one without needing to see the other.

The common complaint about this third film is that it basically represents a rehash of the entire series, and there is something to that complaint. However, I find that there's also something satisfying about how things play out, even if they do so in a mostly predictable fashion. For me, the thing that the first film had that the sequels don't is the relationship between Lisbeth Salandar and Mikael Blomkvist. That was what impressed me most about the first film, but in the sequels, the plot requires a physical separation of the characters and the interactions through intermediaries just aren't the same. And in this film, the majority of screen time belongs to Blomkvist, who isn't as interesting as Lisbeth (who spends most of her time in a hospital, jail cell, or courtroom, and her interactions are mostly speechless).

So perhaps it isn't quite as good as the first two films, but it's still a worthy effort that's better than most of its competition. To me, the first film is clearly the best. The two sequels, taken as a whole are quite good, but can't quite recapture the magic of the first. It's rumored that Larsson left behind plot outlines and half finished works for a number of additional sequels, and the original trilogy has been far too successful to let those sit unfinished. This could, of course, be a blessing or a curse. There are many pitfalls possible in potential sequels to these three films, but there is also the possibility of recapturing the magic. Also, while I'm not normally enthused about Hollywood remakes of foreign films (especially when they're made so close together in time), I have to admit that the talent being assembled for the remakes looks promising.

There are certain similarities between Lisbeth Salandar and the hero of Winter's Bone, yet they're very different characters. Ree Dolly is the primary focus of Winter's Bone, and she's a 17 year old who's faced with a sick mother and two kids to raise (not her kids - they're her brother and sister). She does not live for herself; everything she does is for the benefit of others. Early on in the movie we learn that she dreams of joining the army. Later, we find out that the only reason she would do so is because of the signing bonus, which would be a boon to her cash-strapped family. So aside from being strong and independent, she doesn't really share anything else in common with Lisbeth Salandar, but that's enough. Roger Ebert actually catches on to the most courageous thing about this character in his review:
Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year-old newcomer who has already starred in Jodie Foster's next film. Lawrence embodies a fierce, still center that is the source of her heroism. She makes no boasts, issues no threats, depends on a dogged faith that people will do the right thing — even when no one we meet seems to deserve that faith. “Don't ask for what's not offered,” she tells her little brother, although the lives of her parents seem to be an exercise in asking and not offering. Did she raise herself?
(emphasis mine) That she "depends on a dogged faith that people will do the right thing" is an interesting and rare thing in a thriller of this nature. Usually you can expect this sort of independent movie to be so steeped in misery that the only resulting feeling is despair. But this film is different. The "faith" espoused by Ree is something that makes her much more courageous than most film heros. It's not glamorous and it won't earn her any fanfare, but it gets the job done. This isn't to say that everything is fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but there is a very "real" feeling to the film.

The story is relatively straightforward. Ree's father, a meth cooker by trade, has disappeared after putting the family's house up as collateral on his bail bond. If he doesn't show up for the trial, the family will loose the house. When Ree is informed, she says "I'll find him," with the quiet determination and resolve that is uncommon for folks in her situation. The film does bog down a bit as Ree goes from person to person, many of whom are seemingly from the same family (though the relationships are rarely very clear), and eventually begins to piece together what happened to her father.

The film is perhaps a bit too long considering how simple the story is, and thus the pacing is a bit too slow, but it's still a striking movie. Filmed on location in the back woods of Missouri, the setting is atmospheric and evocative. In a time of economic downturn it seems appropriate, but I suspect the setting of this film was the same even when business was booming. Visually, the film is stark and while not showy, it's effective. The acting is great, especially the lead (as already mentioned, Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-worthy performance) and her uncle, played by John Hawkes. Given the nature of the story, there would be a real danger of falling back on caricature, but writer/director Debra Granik never lets that happen, which is quite impressive.

In the end, I really enjoyed both of these movies, even though both suffer from some flaws that many would find deal-breakers. I don't expect either to really broach the top 10 at the end of the year, but they're both quite interesting in their own ways and I'm glad I got to see them...