Nearly one in 10 Americans are out of work, about a million homes are foreclosed on each year and the dollar is at historic lows, but you’d never know it from watching American films. In Hollywood, whatever the topic -NYC rom-com, lesbian parents, ape uprisings, viral outbreak — the American Dream is alive and well. It’s a matter of course that we find people ensconced in comfortable suburban homes or roomy urban lofts with a good car or two and lots of brand clothing, electronics and lattes.
While the British are quite good at pumping out films that reflect various levels of society — nice double-feature: “The Queen” followed by “Nil By Mouth” — it’s the rare American film (and usually an indie) that peers into society’s margins, where things are lean and getting leaner.
“Winter’s Bone,” the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner from 2010, inhabits the same grungy, white-trash milieu glimpsed in such flicks as “River’s Edge,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Spun.” In particular, the film focuses on the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, a hardscrabble hillbilly region that keeps to itself. These days, like much of the poverty-line heartland, the Ozarks are awash with tweakers cooking up crystal meth, the poor man’s cocaine. (In 2010 alone, Missouri busted nearly 2,000 meth labs.)
Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell (“Ride With the Devil”), who himself lives in the Ozarks, “Winter’s Bone” follows the story of 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a big-boned girl who has the adult responsibility of caring for her younger brother and sister. Ree’s mom is mentally out of it, and her father, a clandestine meth cooker, has gone missing.
The local sheriff arrives to inform Ree that if her dad doesn’t show up for his court date, their house — which he put up as bond for bail -will be repossessed. Ree makes the rounds of friends and relatives, including her hard-edged meth-head uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), searching for clues in the tight-lipped criminal underground as to where she might find her father — if he’s still alive.
First-time director Debra Granik does an excellent job of capturing the setting, from the trash-strewn yards and rough-hewn clapboard shacks to the way people come out into their yards to know a stranger’s business well before she gets to the doorstep. Perhaps not surprisingly, Granik cites Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as influences, and her mix of social realism and backwoods noir is a winning combination.
As for the cast, Lawrence’s stoic determination as Ree is impressive, but it’s Hawkes’ borderline psychopath Teardrop that propels the film. Watch the menace he brings to a line such as “I told you to shut up once already with my mouth,” and you’ll glimpse the ghost of “Blue Velvet”-era Dennis Hopper.
The world that Ree inhabits is almost hermetically sealed — cops and social workers can show their faces, but damned if anyone is going to tell them anything. We find the exact same situation halfway around the globe in “Gomorrah,” which looks at criminal control of a mazelike housing estate on the outskirts of Naples.
Working from a book by journalist Roberto Saviano — now living under 24-hour police protection — director Matteo Garrone offers a fistful of intertwined stories to illustrate a society corrupted to the core by the Neapolitan organized-crime syndicate, the Camorra. This isn’t a character-driven drama like “Winter’s Bone,” but more of a documentary-esque tableaux like “Traffic”; each character thinks they can find a way to work around or with the Mafia-like Camorra, and each is disabused of that notion.
“Gomorrah” is a near total deglamorization of what these gangs are about; “Sopranos” fans be warned. We meet a meek-looking accountant, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who delivers money to the families of gangsters doing time, some of whom are too frightened to even leave their homes; he laments the loss of order as younger, wilder mobsters move up the ranks.
Emblematic of those types are Marco and Ciro (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone), who have spent too much time watching “Scarface” and engage in risky, gun-waving robberies. Thirteen-year-old Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a good kid, but one who sees his only employment option as a runner for a gang. Then there’s Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a talented tailor who can barely pay his staff on the money left after the Camorra has taken its cut; he accepts a lucrative offer to advise a rival Chinese sweatshop, but at great personal risk.
Perhaps the film’s most chilling segment — for local audiences — is when Franco (Toni Servillo), a smooth-talking “businessman,” arranges for the illegal dumping of toxic waste on a farm in Campania. An old woman working the fields gives his associate a box of ripe-looking apricots; as soon as they drive off, Franco orders him to toss them by the road, knowing full well how contaminated they are.
Not a thought is given to the people who may actually be eating this fruit. It’s easy to imagine this happening with all that post-Fukushima radioactive soil and ash if the yakuza were to sniff the business opportunity. The Camorra may be an Italian phenomena, but quick and dirty profiteering, alas, is global.