Handheld, or “shaky,” camera is a lot older than one might believe. While the technique was used sparingly as early as the 1920s, it really came into its own during the 1980s, most notably in the film The Evil Dead. The Evil Dead is the prototypical “teenagers in the woods” film, in which director Sam Raimi used a particularly novel version of the now-notorious shaky cam to add tension to scenes in which his protagonists were running from often-unseen demons. The camera crashes through the woods, knocking aside branches and swerving around tree trunks, always right on the heels of its latest victim. These scenes are memorable because they are the exception to the relatively staid cinematography present in the rest of the film; they exist to elicit a heightened emotion from the audience for the particular scenes in which they are deployed.
While many critics would point to Cloverfield as the nadir of the shaky cam films that began to plague cinemas in the 2000s, I believe that 2009’s Star Trek is the worst offender. The camera’s non-stop motion throughout the movie is not the result of diegetic camera-movement. There is no narrative or stylistic reason for the edges of every shot to be in constant motion. The technique is not used sparingly to accent particularly tense scenes but exists at more or less a constant level throughout the film’s running time. The shaky cam in Star Trek represents the height of directorial laziness, and, what’s worse, it forever marks the film as a product of its age; like bad 80s hairstyles popping up in republican Rome or far-future space stations, the purposeful jostling of the frame comes across as an undeniably millennial cinematic trademark.
Released a year after Star Trek, Winter’s Bone employs a slightly toned down version of the shaky cam for almost its entire running length. I emphasize this fact only because it genuinely mystifies me that director Debra Granik chose to mar an otherwise perfect film by using such a cheap, faddish cinematic crutch. Every other aspect of the film, from the acting to the music to the production design, actively contributes to the story of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree as she searches for her father in the Ozarks. Every interior set is a perfectly-constructed portrait of the particular brand of American poverty that exists in rural areas. The whole cast, particularly Lawrence herself, morphs into their hard-bitten characters, who play off of one another in a series of tiny power struggles the logic of which the audience only slowly comes to understand. And the setting, when the camera allows us to see it, is cold and uninviting, a constant reminder that without the help of other people, everyone who lives there would die starving and alone.
Granik uses the story of Ree’s journey into the twisted logic of backwoods justice to explore the gender politics at play among the American rural poverty. The men are, without exception, rough, misogynistic, meth-cooking (and snorting) assholes. They also hold all the power. Ree’s absent father Jessop sets off the film’s plot because he signs over his land and home to post bail before disappearing, an act that is never questioned by any character; his catatonic wife and three children are simply left holding the bill. The women treat their men like wild animals, at turns appeasing and avoiding them, and sometimes even acting as buffers between them and the outside world. When Ree shows up at a distant relative’s house asking about her father, the man’s wife asks, “Ain’t you got no men could do this?”
If the women are trapped by the men, the men are trapped within a cycle of violence that dates back to the Hatfields and McCoys. John Hawkes (looking here like a hillbilly Charles Manson) plays Jessop’s only living brother who quickly gets pulled into Ree’s search for her father and from there becomes inevitably involved in a conflict with the family that is thought to have killed the man. Even though he states that he’s not interested in taking revenge, he is unable to escape the blood feud, and by the end of the film he is literally moved to action by his knowledge that he must exact revenge. The men kill each other and blow up trailers while cooking methamphetamine, and the women are left to clean up and carry on.
All of this would seem like backwoods-exploitation were the acting and set dressing not perfect. Luckily, the performances are all top-notch, from the bit players on up. Particular credit goes to Garret Dillahunt as the local sheriff who tries, largely in vain, to keep up the appearance of law and order in a land where justice is meted out in barns and behind woodsheds. Jennifer Lawrence moves through the film with an undeniable energy; there is an intensity behind her eyes that tells everyone she meets that, despite her age and gender, she is not to be fucked with.
Likewise, the sets in Winter's Bone are incredibly rich, every detail adding to the portrait of bleak Americana. The interiors of the houses are cluttered with cheap, mass-produced products, a constant reminder of the weight of poverty that is slowly crushing those who living within them. American poverty is defined by excess rather than privation; while Ree’s family relies on their neighbors for food, there is no shortage of plastic action figures and unmatched Tupperware tops cluttering their abode. Likewise, the rusting hulks of trucks and blown-down corrugated tin sheds litter the yards between the trailers and the woods. The people here are constantly surrounded by reminders of better, richer times that have long since passed them by.
But then there’s the shaky cam, distracting the audience from all of this by reminding them again and again that they’re watching a movie from 2010. In the middle of the film we are treated to a dream sequence shot in beautiful black and white 8mm. The use of that film stock indicates a nostalgia and surreality that fits perfectly with the scene’s subject matter. Camera techniques are supposed to add to a film, and this scene illustrates the point perfectly. What might have been a timeless classic is rendered a product of its era by a simple camera technique that would better have been left within the cinematographer’s bag of tricks. The film, while excellently written and acted, is trapped in 2010 like a fly in amber