The reason Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is one of the best films of 2010 is because its depiction of Ozark life feels completely authentic. Meskada writer/director Josh Sternfeld's depiction of small town life feels completely inauthentic at almost every level. In his follow-up to Winter Solstice, Sternfeld attempts to use a standard police procedural as a jumping off point to explore socio-economic disparity in rural America. With society's haves eternally subjugating its have-nots, there's much to be said on the subject...if only Sternfeld's effort wasn't so slow and unfocussed. The only marketable name here is Nick Stahl (Terminator 3), which is another reason financial returns are guaranteed to be meager.
The film's canvas stretches across two small burgs in fictional Meskada County, the affluent Hilliard and the impoverished Caswell, although Sternfeld and DP Daniel Sariano fail to make a clear enough visual distinction between the two. Stahl elevates the well-intentioned, undercooked material as Noah, a local detective assigned to investigate the murder of a boy killed during a home robbery. The murderers are never in question. We meet them in the first scene. They are Shane (Jonathan Tucker) and Eddie (Kellan Lutz from those vampire movies the kids seem to like), two dead-enders from Caswell occasionally scrounging up work in Hilliard. Noah grew up in Caswell and made it out, settling down with them rich folks across the county. When the investigation leads Noah back to his underprivileged former stomping grounds, the citizenry accuse him of "bothering us white trash, hoping for a miracle."
The stix are depicted as a place where prideful families struggle to fend off desperation and city council-grade politics can determine a town's fate. We've experienced this dynamic in plenty of movies, except here motivations and character connections are fuzzy. Sternfeld prioritizes a tight knit clan of wagon-circling Caswell lifers to the detriment of Noah, who never establishes himself as the story's strong, emotional core with the unique perspective of having lived both sides of the economic divide. Instead, his investigation serves as our introduction to the Meskada County players, including Shane's brother-in-law Dennis (Norman Reedus), a philanderer and momentary suspect who's been letting Shane crash on his couch for months. Noah later sleuths his way to Nat (Meryl Streep progeny Grace Gummer), Eddie's bartender girlfriend and the recipient of Eddie's deep thoughts like, "you ever think about what's after...life?"
Noah's pursuit of the guilty drives the film but Sternfeld's primary interest is weaving personal and political threads into a grander statement about corporatism. Or possibly blue collar powerlessness. Or maybe how the powerful use lowly wage earners to advance their own personal and professional interests. It's hard to say what Meskada is driving at. By the final fadeout, which comes before a helpful title card reading "The End," Sternfeld's characters have been run ragged to make a point that is never clear. One thing is certain: he has little regard for small town politics. Shane and Eddie had the "bad luck" to kill the son of a political bigwig from Hilliard named Allison (Laura Benanti). Her main weapon is stony silence, which she deploys at city council meetings in order to scuttle the construction of a pharmaceutical plant that would employ hundreds of Caswell residents. With Allison convinced that her son's killers are from Caswell, she aims to deny the town much needed jobs until they cough up the murderers. That degree of clout and influence is never made believable, putting it on par with too much of Sternfeld's functional dialogue. A crucial city council meeting is confusing and another gathering ends with Allison's hysterical (as in both "uncontrollably emotional" and "funny") scream for justice. Sternfeld also shows little knack for the smooth establishment of backstory. At one point, Shane simply asks Eddie "how long have I known you?" which results in Eddie telling Shane how long he has known him. Later, Noah tells his crime fighting partner, a county gumshoe named Leslie (Rachel Nichols, way too gorgeous for the role) "you don't say much personal-style stuff," after which she rattles off about a minute of personal-style stuff. Such inelegance indicates a filmmaker with big ideas he doesn't have the insight, focus or talent (yet) to pull off.
Cast: Nick Stahl, Rachel Nichols, Kellan Lutz, Jonathan Tucker, Norman Reedus and Grace Gummer
Director/Screenwriter: Josh Sternfeld
Producers: Jen Gatien, Michael Goodin, Jay Kubassek, Shawn Rice and Ron Stein
Rated: R for language, some violence and a scene of sexuality.
Running time: 87 min
Release date: December 3 ltd.