Jolie’s Salt spy-jinks lack spice, while Winter’s Bone an intriguing, edgy indie

by Mark Burger

The bullet-riddled espionage thriller Salt finds Angelina Jolie back in action, playing the title role of a fierce, foxy CIA operative swept up in a miasma of international skullduggery.

Yet for all the hype and hoopla that befits a potential summer blockbuster — and a potential big-screen franchise, if it’s successful enough — Salt feels like a rush job. There’s plenty of talent here, both in front of and behind the cameras, and all of it is squandered.

Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is blithely able to lead a double life. At work, she’s a crack CIA agent. At home, she’s adoring wife to Mike (August Diehl), a research scientist specializing in spiders. Then comes the shocking revelation, delivered by a detained ex-KGB agent (Daniel Olbrychski)

that Evelyn Salt is really leading a double life: She’s a sleeper agent trained to infiltrate the CIA.

There’s no time to ponder any of this, as Evelyn makes a fast getaway and sets about proving her identity while trying to prevent the Cold War from not only being resurrected, but heated to the boiling point — with the ultimate target for assassination being the US president (Hunt Block).

Is Evelyn Salt CIA or KGB?

Or, is it just possible, that she’s both? Although Salt’s box-office might benefit from recent headlines about Russian agents being nabbed in the United States — to say nothing of its leading lady’s appeal — the film is a disappointing film. Beyond that, it’s a depressing one.

Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t without possibilities, yet too often it’s contrived — never failing to find convenient (bordering on stupid) ways for Salt to escape her latest predicament and the narrative to progress, albeit in clunky, smallscreen fashion, to the next predicament. It’s been reported that the project was originally written for Tom Cruise, then altered to tailor Jolie. (Wonder no more why Cruise passed.)

Likewise, although director Phillip Noyce has directed some glossy Hollywood trash in his day (Patriot Games, Sliver, The Saint), this seems among his most disappointing and desultory films, particularly in light of his recent, better work (The Quiet American, Catch a Fire). Additionally, Robert Elswit is one of the best cinematographers working today, with an Oscar for There Will Be Blood (2007) to his credit, yet the cinematography here is mundane and muddy, despite the typical, staccato MTV-style editing. Such frantic cutting is a transparent attempt to distract from the flimsiness of the story, and Salt is hardly the first (or the last) film to do likewise.

Also on hand, and in constant pursuit of our heroine, are Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor as fellow agents. As good as both actors are, even they seem bored here. Block plays one of the more doltish commander-in-chiefs in recent memory, while Andre Braugher, a fine actor, is mere cannon fodder in the tiny role of the Secretary of Defense.

As a showcase for Jolie, Salt fits the bill, but in uninspired fashion. As always, she cuts a striking figure. Too bad the movie around her strikes out.

Winter’s Bone, an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel, is a much more persuasive showcase for its leading lady, in this case 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, who brings a powerful and simple dignity to her role of Ree Dolly, a wise-beyond-her-years teenager living in the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains.

Ree learns that her estranged father, a notorious ne’er do well jailed for cooking methamphetamine, has disappeared after signing over the family’s home as collateral to fund his parole. Unless she can locate him, the family will summarily be evicted.

In an attempt to locate his whereabouts of her father, Ree seeks him out among various acquaintances and relatives, a family tree which turns out so have some fairly gnarled branches. Many of them she’s never met before, a number of them of them hold grudges (in some cases, for things that occurred before she was even born), and a few of them clearly have secrets they wish to keep hidden. They don’t want Ree to find her father.

Although not an excessively violent film, the threat of sudden violence is always present, and just because Ree is tough and smart is no guarantee that she’ll emerge from this experience intact, either physically or emotionally. She is, after all, still very vulnerable.

She’s on her own much of the time, although her father’s brother (John Hawkes) ultimately displays some sympathy for her plight — and a grudging respect for her tenacity. The local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) feels bad but isn’t much help, clearly preferring to leave Ree’s family to their pathetic lot.

Fueled by Lawrence’s performance, director Debra Granik (who also wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini) maintains a grip on the proceedings without resorting to unnecessary concessions, and makes excellent use of the film’s Missouri locations (although it‘s hardly an advertisement for tourism). There’s no humor here — not even black comedy — nor any sentiment, although the tinges of Southern gothic and film noir add a bit of seasoning and mood.

Like its principal character, Winter’s Bone tenaciously moves forward in determined fashion, getting to where it’s going by carefully building its tension toward the denouement. The result is well worth seeing.