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I had the opportunity to see this film again at the Florida Film
Festival (after having seen it screened at Sundance), and I have to say
though I was watching the film for a 2nd time, I still found myself
completely engaged in the narrative. The film was awarded the Grand Jury
Prize for Best Narrative Feature. At times, I nearly forgot that I was
watching a film. Vera Farmiga gives a powerful and evocative performance,
which must rank among the best in her career. Down to the Bone seems
in the cinematic schools of Cinema Verite and Neo-Realism, and the
Debra Granik, obviously seems devoted to the idea of making a film without
the usual Hollywood bells and whistles. So, the film depicts the bleakness
of drug addiction, but without sensationalizing it with the usual tropes:
Overdoses, guns, car chases, etc...
The end of the film is left ambiguous, which forces the filmviewer to forego the simplicities of a stock ending; the audience is given the ability to draw their own conclusions. Your choice--does the film have a happy ending or not? Of course, this is not too dissimilar to the dilemmas that people face in real life.
This film is certainly not for everyone. It demands the focus and attention of the filmgoer. As such, Down to the Bone is geared more to the committed and sophisticated cinema enthusiast. The film features a minimalist soundtrack, from which it is difficult to draw the obvious emotive clues. The cinematography is original, as the viewer is exposed to a seemingly endless palette of grays. However, it is not an "easy" film to watch--there is no "eye candy" for the viewer.
Debra Granik's Feature Film Directoral debut shows tremendous promise, and I look forward to her future projects. I rate this film as very good: a 9 out of 10. Frankly, I'm at a loss in understanding why a dozen of IMDB users have rated this film just as a "2". Can the Film Juries at Sundance and Florida be so off the mark? I guess that the cliche is true: there really is no accounting for taste!
Having been intrigued by Vera Farmiga's idiosyncratic turn as a
confused police psychologist in Martin Scorsese's viscerally impressive
"The Departed", I was curious to see her in this critically acclaimed
low-budget 2005 indie. As it turns out, she gives a startling,
soul-bearing performance as Irene, a working class wife and mother with
a cocaine dependency problem. The primary difference between this film
and more conventionally moralizing addiction movies is how her
drug-taking habit has so casually permeated her life.
Written (with Richard Lieske) and directed by first-timer Debra Granik, the film provides a documentary-like feel for Irene's downtrodden existence in New York's blue-collar-dominated Ulster County as a supermarket cashier, who has been likely a stoner for most of her adult life. Cut off by her drug dealer for falling behind on her payments, she pilfers one of her children's birthday checks and realizes the depths she has plumbed. Checking herself into rehab, Irene looks like she is on the road to recovery, but she is hamstrung by an affair that starts with Bob, a male nurse recovered from his own addiction. Compounded by her firing from the market and a husband who continues to enable her, she finds herself in a vicious circle of entangled dependency and dwindling hope.
The movie gets choppy and unnecessarily elliptical at times, although it is not as desultory as one would expect from the set-up. Don't expect any bravura set pieces for Farmiga, who is in almost every scene. It is the utter sense of emotional desolation she conveys in the small moments that resonates. Even when she shows how much she cares for her two sons or has moments of hope about a brighter future, there is a lingering melancholy that haunts all her scenes. Though clearly overshadowed, Hugh Dillon is quite good as Bob, as is Clint Jordan as husband Steve. I was surprised to find out from the informative commentary track by Granik and Farmiga that many of the supporting players were local non-actors. The 2006 DVD also includes the primitive but still impressive 1997 twenty-minute short, "Snake Feed", upon which the film is based.
"Down to the Bone", Debra Granik's first effort at Directing a feature
film, deals with the issue of drug addiction without making any moral
judgments. Ms. Granik's director style is clearly influenced by Cinema
Verite, and embodies some neo-realist elements. The film follows the
protagonist, Irene (powerfully played by Vera Farmiga), as her cocaine
begins to wreak havoc in her life. Amidst the bleakness and despair of her
life, Irene still struggles to hold down her job, and keep her family
together. Naturally, things begin to fall apart--but even as they do, she
has a chance meeting with Bob (Hugh Dillon), which presages the
will later become the outlet for Irene from her dreary and disquieting
domestic life. After Irene tries to spend her kid's birthday money on
she has a moment of epiphany, and decides to check herself into a rehab
clinic. It is there that she re-encounters Bob, who works as a male nurse.
former junkie, Bob is able to both sympathize and empathize with Irene's
withdrawal symptoms, and soon it becomes manifest that there is a mutual
attraction between them. After some fits and starts, this blossoms into a
romance. The affair is depicted without sentimentality or judgment, and
there is much verisimilitude in the various awkward moments that occurs as
both Irene and Bob make the choice to proceed despite the risks. Just when it looks as though Bob and Irene will live happily ever after, Bob relapses to his heroin habit. More out of pique than curiosity, Irene joins him. When they get busted with possession, Irene faces a crossroads. She still loves Bob, but can she afford to keep him in her life? The cinematography in the film helps to define the stylist niche. The travails of living in upstate New York during the depths of Winter are made manifest. There are various shades of gray and blue so bleak that there is a chilling beauty to the scenery. At other times, the camera pans over the detritus of America's consumerist society, and vapid patriotism. The film touches many dissonant notes, yet does not become cacophonous. Ultimately the viewer is left with more questions than answers. This, of course, is in marked contrast to the standard Hollywood fare, where all off the loose ends are magically tied together in the last five minutes. This film marks a promising debut to Ms. Granik's feature film Directorial career, and Independent Film aficionados should eagerly await her next effort.
"Down to the Bone" follows in the tradition of classic addiction and
rehab movies (such as "Clean and Sober"), but it doesn't stoop to any
The key to the story's credibility is the director's documentary style, the use of authentic, working class locales in Upstate New York, and terrific acting.
Debut director Debra Granik and co-writer Richard Lieske don't follow the typical trajectory of horrific addiction experiences ("Lost Weekend," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Requiem for a Dream," etc.), though there's some frightening close calls, but quietly build an accretion of how a drug habit affects a mother and her family in her daily life as a cashier and living in a house her ne'er do well husband never finishes renovating. With no explication or back story, "Irene"s life plays out for us completely through what we see in grainy digital video and the characters' inarticulate interactions.
Rehab is only the half-way point in a continuing struggle (and we have seen the 12-steps many times but perhaps not this drearily matter-of-factly) and the film is brilliant at demonstrating just how difficult it is to quit when everywhere there are not only triggers for physical need but how those around her benefited in some way from her behavior when she was high and keep encouraging her to indulge. Lapsing is cynically referred to as "the 13th step." None of these insights are hammered home redundantly as we see her frustrations and resiliency.
I've noted Vera Farmiga in various TV series, but here she reveals guts, strength and range below her fragile beauty as she very believably, step by step, gives "Irene" backbone. Her chemistry with a seductively magnetic Hugh Dillon is terrific as their relationship goes from attraction to risk to independence.
Though at one point New York City is a bit tritely used as a tempting source for drugs, the primary settings in snowy Kingston and Ulster County, with its downscale stores, weatherbeaten houses, high unemployment and desolate highway scapes set the characters in a very believable, multi-racial setting.
There is a bit of heavy-handed symbolism with a pet snake, but the young children are terrifically natural, especially in their whiney-ness and physical reactions.
The soundtrack unobtrusively includes an interesting selection of indie rock, including by Dillon's band.
'Down to the Bone' is a mirror depiction of the lower-to-middle class struggle to keep clean while trying to overcome the perils of poverty and raise a family. It is not your typical run-of-the-mill addiction story either, revealing the darker sides of the problem and focusing on the lives it so often can tear apart. Vera Farmiga was the shining star in this role as Irene, a mother of two trying to keep her cocaine addiction a secret and save a marriage on the rocks. At 'Sundance' Vera took home 'The Special Jury Prize' for her performance and Director Debra Granik won the 'Director's Award.' It's no wonder that Martin Scorsese went out of his way to get her for her upcoming role in "The Departed." She is and will be a great actress in Hollywood for years to come. I look forward to her success in the future.
I saw this because I enjoyed the intense experience of Debra Granik's
more recent film, "Winter's Bone". This film, similarly titled "Down to
the Bone", covers somewhat the same emotional range. It is a very bleak
story, but not entirely the most accomplished one. The problem with
attempting an unpredictable story of addiction is in following the
predictable life of an addict. This film is neither complex enough or
well executed enough to really give us a new way of seeing things.
Better cinematography could have helped. Using very cheap digital
equipment (though probably more high tech as of 2004), Granik and
cinematographer Michael McDonough take "Down to the Bone" in a more
vérité-style direction. But the production values are low and poor even
by normal documentary standards. This is a style that would only have
great merit if this truly was a documentary, and not a dramatic film.
The use of a soundtrack and other cinematic devices detracts from any
possible grittiness that could have added to the feel.
The truth and power lies in the acting, as understated as it is here. It's refreshing to see human lives without a lot of exaggeration or demonstrative emoting. Vera Farmiga is the best thing going here, and I found her style compelling. The other performances are all good, and never feel any less than real. In the end, something about this film feels unfinished. Debra Granik has gone on to do a much better picture with "Winter's Bone". This is in interesting starting place, but it just isn't enough more than that.
Given the subject matter of drug addiction Down to the Bone almost can't help but be a rather depressing film. But depressing doesn't necessarily have to mean bad. Unfortunately in this case it is in fact pretty bad. The film has some good things going for it, most notably the quality performance of Vera Farmiga in the central role of Irene, a working mom struggling with a cocaine addiction. But there isn't enough good here to outweigh the bad. The film's failings lie mainly with the story, which fails to captivate and never really seems to get going. Irene goes to rehab and comes home to a clueless husband who has no idea how to support her attempt to kick her habit. Irene grows close to another recovering addict, a male nurse from her rehab center. Complications ensue. But the story never really sparks to life. It doesn't seem as if the movie is really going anywhere. You can say it's a stark, realistic look at the day-to-day struggles of an addict. Maybe so but in this case it doesn't make for an interesting movie. The whole thing has a very "blah" feel to it. The minimalist cinematography doesn't help matters, adding another layer of drab to the incredibly drab proceedings. And none of the other performances measure up to Farmiga's. Hugh Dillon is OK as Irene's male nurse friend but nobody else in the cast adds anything of value to the proceedings. All in all this movie is a bleak, depressing and rather dull ride.
This movie telegraphs its tone in the first minute -- as others have
pointed out, it's not exactly breezy. But it is well worth making the
commitment to watch.
Farmiga's performance has integrity and guts, especially when she's interacting with the kids, but all her interactions with the secondary characters have a compelling spark of reality to them. She uses her whole body to say a line, the way real people sometimes do, especially when under stress. As in her other works, she commands every scene she's in. It's nice to see her own an entire film.
I felt the same subversive sweetness under the surface that many classic, superbly observed films seem to share, along with an astringently dry humor and personality, while remaining almost unrelentingly bleak on the surface. I found the final ten seconds particularly satisfying.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Down to the Bone" is about Irene (Vera Farmiga) and Bob (Hugh Dillon)
who relapse together after getting clean from drugs. Irene is a
supermarket cashier and is married to Steve (Clint Jordan), who's
friendly but clueless about addiction, since he enables Irene
thoughtlessly both before and after recovery. They have two little
The first thing you notice is how effortlessly natural Farmiga is in her scenes with the boys. It gradually sinks in also that this movie avoids drug rehab clichés. Irene isn't having wild fun. All she needs is a little bit to get by every day. When her stash runs out, she gets anxious; and when she tries to use grandma's birthday check for one of the boys to score and gets rebuffed by her dealer, she checks into a realistically ugly and ordinary rehab program. This film also excels for the specific feel of its upstate New York locations.
Appropriately, this gray, hard time of Irene's rehab and her attempt to stay clean comes in the long upstate winter. A male nurse named Bob met Irene at Halloween and then there was a little sizzle of attraction, the lighting of cigarettes. Bob turns out to be working at the rehab clinic and takes a personal interest too personal in her. At first he does all the right things or does he? He gets a little too close on institutional time.
Irene leaves rehab too soon after only one week because of her job and kids. She can't handle her job straight and gets fired from the store. Irene's Latina pal from rehab, Lucy (Caridad de la Cruz), who cleans houses with her after that, warns her she's "thirteenth-stepping" a 12-step term meaning to risk clean time in risky romancing with another recovering addict in this case Bob to fill the big void left when drugs are withdrawn.
Bob is an interesting, specific person. Hugh Dillon's performance is up to the level of Farmiga's. Originally the model or recovery, Bob's improper "thirteenth-stepping" relationship with Irene which she initiates but both are ready for this mistake leads him back to a worse addiction than hers heroin which he's been off of for five years. Together, they are poison for each other. They soon get into a situation leading to an arrest for possession. They drive to the city and she gets a piercing and they buy the boys the pet snake they've been wanting. While she's being pierced, Bob scores a bag and goes back out. After the arrest, Steve kicks Irene out. She gets a suspended sentence with treatment, including rehab and 250 hours of NA meetings in a year. If she deviates, she goes to jail.
This may be it, the "bottom" leading to lasting recovery for Irene. But this is a knowing and realistic version of the drug recovery experience and it lacks simple climaxes or resumption's. Irene is still cleaning houses with Lucy, still dealing with her kids and their pet snake (which becomes an obvious, if gentle, symbol of temptation), and Bob's still around ""helping" along his Methadone doses with illegally acquired barbiturates and lying to Irene about it.
As the film ends, Irene kicks Bob out of her house and he says "I'll never get clean alone." Catch-22: he'll never get clean with her, either.
"Down to the Bone," though indie gold, is, frankly, only a tiny blip on the big screen. Though it won prizes at Sundance few will see it or want to. Though it achieves a remarkable degree of authenticity, it could use some sharper editing and some smiles. For addicts ready for recovery, getting high usually has stopped being fun. But this movie forgets that it ever was fun, and strangers to the drug life may wonder what's going on here. But then, they never do understand: that's why there are 12-step meetings, which the movie might have said more about, since most addicts who make it, in America anyway, do it through the Twelve Steps, going to meetings, getting a sponsor, and working the steps. Rehab alone rarely does the trick. This is the kind of movie that, for good or ill, Sundance loves but mainstream audiences avoid. It's very good, but also very grim.
Most of us watch films to be entertained in one way or another, and
entertainment implies enjoyment. That said, sometimes "enjoyment" is
not one the mind as more realistic, perhaps more honest films unspool
lives destroyed by drugs or alcohol.
Down To The Bone is such a film, a frank portrait concerning the insidious drag of drug addiction, about the social and personal trap that occurs when a debilitating drive becomes so strong a life is in shreds; Vera Farmiga won an award for her performance as an addicted mother of two who can no longer connect with her husband and little wonder (he's not terribly sensitive or reflective); her job is a dead-end, and a side romance turns into another addiction; the film is not a cheerer-upper in any way, is not strong on plot or action, but captures perfectly the life of someone hopelessly strung out; if you might find this an interesting slice of life to watch, perhaps you will enjoy it or even exult in it's power.
It's not always easy to define Entertainment, and though this is not much fun, it's certainly incisive about it's subject matter, and features another stunning performance from it's magnetic lead.
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