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Review: Little Woods Is a Thriller That Thinks It’s Too Good for Thrills

Nia DaCosta indulges one of rural quasi-thriller’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.

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Little Woods
Photo: Neon

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods belongs to a subgenre of American indie cinema concerned with poor people trying to hold on to the stability they’ve managed to carve out for themselves in forbidding places. This subgenre of film bears the influence of the western and the procedural character studies of the Dardennes and the Romanian New Wave, and it often treats disenfranchised populations as exhibits in a kind of zoo. The characters in these films are often seen only in terms of how they affirm a political thesis statement, as their individualities are eclipsed in the filmmakers’ minds by their social neediness. No matter how well-meaning such theses may be, the films usually feel incurious and condescending.

Unlike, say, Frozen River, Little Woods isn’t exactly condescending, but it lacks the poetry of the respective films of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, masters of what can be called the rural quasi-thriller. Reichardt and Granik offer punishing visions of America that are nevertheless attuned to the incidental moments that enliven even fraught existences, while DaCosta often falls prey to the clichés of the subgenre. She familiarly presents lower working-class men as hairy and drunken brutes who talk only of their inherent misery, and women as living in perpetual reaction to these men’s hostilities. DaCosta, then, indulges one of the genre’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.

Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are sisters, via Ollie’s adoption by Deb’s now deceased mother, who live in an oil boomtown in North Dakota. The sisters are defined in terms of their desperation—through the dictates of a thriller structure—and DaCosta doles out their involved and stereotypical backstory in dribs and drabs. Ollie is the good sister, who stood by her mother while Deb was involved in her own personal calamities, having a son she can’t afford to raise with a drunk and absent father, Ian (James Badge Dale). Ollie turned to selling OxyContin on the black market, with Ian’s help, to pay for her mother’s medical bills. Eventually caught running drugs back from Canada, Ollie is now on the verge of finishing her probation as supervised by her probation officer, Carter (Lance Riddick). And, of course, on the eve of getting a respectable new job, Ollie will be pulled back into the classic Final Score.

DaCosta has a fine feel for the texture of her film’s boomtown setting, particularly in the evocative scenes in which Ollie sells the poor oil workers coffee and sandwiches at cheaper prices than the local restaurants. But the characters are dully familiar. Ollie is a saint with no apparent inner life, with no opinions or desires that don’t immediately bolster the plot. Thompson gives the role her usual intensity, though Ollie is stubbornly defined by the steadfast earnestness that’s common of protagonists in this sort of film. She refers to taking pleasure in selling black market drugs, but we never see that emotion in her face, which might’ve given Little Woods an ambiguous sense of exhilaration. And a significant detail of Ollie’s identity is pointedly ignored: that she’s an attractive woman of color who appears to live in a place that’s populated mostly by undereducated and oversexed white men. Though Ollie is harassed by men in sexualized altercations, the effect of her seeming dislocation on her identity is pushed aside. Deb, meanwhile, is a MacGuffin: a device for returning Ollie to the drug business in a fashion that doesn’t sully the latter’s unimpeachable principles.

Whenever DaCosta appears to be on the verge of staging a scene intent on surprising the audience, the writer-director nips it in the bud to move on to the next preprogrammed narrative beat. This tendency is especially galling during a scene where Deb tells Ian that she’s pregnant again and that she intends to have an abortion. We’re primed by the formula of the rural quasi-thriller, which is often intensely critical of machismo, for Ian to have a disgusting outburst. Instead, Ian gets down on his knees and puts his head between Deb’s legs, as if praying, and weeps. Unforgivably, DaCosta doesn’t treat this moving moment with the respect it’s due, cutting away from it after a second or two so as to keep the film moving along at an impersonal pace. Little Woods is concerned with topical “relevance” at the expense of drama—or, more bluntly, it’s a thriller that thinks it’s too good for thrills.

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Morgana Shaw Director: Nia DaCosta Screenwriter: Nia DaCosta Distributor: Neon Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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