Been doing a lot of catching up these past few weeks, watching a bunch of recent DVD releases and bracing myself for the avalanche of new films that the studios have been holding for the prestige-heavy final weeks of the year. I like to focus a bit on limited releases this time of year, so like I said last week, the reviewing schedule is kind of up in the air for the remainder of 2010. Blame the unpredictable art-houses, man — I just work here.
This week, we’ve got a look at the provocative revenge thriller “Faster,” accompanied by a brief recommendation for “Winter’s Bone,” one of the more notable early-2010 releases I’ve seen recently. It’s out on DVD/Blu-ray and just swept the Independent Spirit Award nominations, so honestly, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.
This is exactly what Dwayne Johnson needed. After years of ignoring his true calling as a badass action star, preferring instead to parade around in tutus in a bizarre attempt to establish himself as a “family-friendly” nice-guy talent, the actor once known as The Rock has finally flung himself full-force into action-movie anarchy.
The bare-bones story of a man out for revenge against the criminals who murdered his brother, “Faster” delivers some decidedly nasty thrills and puts Johnson’s larger-than-life image center stage. It’s a choice role in a good film, but unfortunately, Johnson is forced to share too much screen time with other, less compelling characters. The film is solid as it stands, but if Johnson had the stage to himself, there’s no telling how bone-crunchingly awesome this thing could have been.
“Faster” would have been better — tighter, leaner, with even more momentum — had the screenwriters focused on one storyline. Had the film simply followed Johnson’s character as he brazenly walks into packed buildings and shoots people in the head, it would have been reductive but at least consistently entertaining. Alas, the film shoe-horns in not one, but two unnecessary and offensively dull subplots (one involving a pathetic junkie cop-on-the-case played by Billy Bob Thornton, the other an equally pathetic hitman out to get Johnson for himself), which completely screws with the accelerated propulsion of Johnson’s scenes. It’s like driving 180 in a muscle car but periodically having to break for turtles.
Still, it works most of the time as a straight-up action/thriller and, perhaps more importantly, as one of the most on-point films I’ve ever seen on the subjects of violence and revenge. On the one hand, “Faster” takes the thesis that violence — even cold-blooded murder, in some instances — can be a force of absolute good in a world where the innocent are so readily preyed upon by evil men. In addition to sating our hero’s obsessive need for closure, these murders also serve to protect against these men harming others in the future. Therefore, violence becomes moral, righteous and even, arguably, necessary in the name of sanity and compassion.
But what happens when the structure of vengeance is disrupted, when distinctions between good and evil are truly tested in the biblical Paul/Saul sense? Can a man’s changed heart and good works take precedence over his evil past, and indeed, can this “new nature” be appreciated or even trusted by someone who was previously victimized by the reformed man in question? None of this may be all that profound or original, but still -- it’s pretty weighty stuff for a potboiler thriller starring The Rock.
“Winter’s Bone” ***1/2
2010, Debra Granik, U.S., R
Upon its release several months ago, the rural, character-based thriller “Winter’s Bone” immediately situated itself as one of the most roundly acclaimed films of the year. This tale of a teenage girl searching for her fugitive father in the treacherous Ozark Mountains is simple — bordering on minimalist — in terms of plot and dialogue, but it is bolstered by a trio of rich performances that have been the source of much of the movie’s acclaim: Jennifer Lawrence, strong yet with an undercurrent of complete vulnerability as the wayward teen; John Hawkes, shockingly intimidating as the girl’s mysterious uncle; and Dale Dickey as the community matriarch, in a small but powerful performance that just radiates implied history. Rare that an actor can so effectively flesh out a character with so few scenes.
Described by some as “Ozark noir,” “Winter’s Bone” strikes just the right mood to get the viewer enveloped in this strange, almost otherworldly coming-of-age odyssey. Even if her screenplay drops the ball at the end by refusing to provide important closure on some key plot points, Granik’s direction is superb. (Just don’t ask me what’s up with the weirdly stylized animal scenes, ’cause your guess is as good as mine.)
Days after seeing it, my mind keeps going back to certain scenes — Lawrence’s first charged encounter with Dickey; the harrowing “barn scene”; Hawkes’ volatile standoff with a potentially dirty cop — that are gradually convincing me that, despite my initial grumblings about the film being a tad over-rated, the relatively unknown Granik may be one to watch after all.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.