Before she gave Jennifer Lawrence her breakout role with 2010’s Winter’s Bone, writer-director Debra Granik made a splash at Sundance—and introduced audiences to Vera Farmiga—with 2004’s bracing Down To The Bone. A wrenching tale of addiction set in a snowy, run-down patch of upstate-New York nowheresville, Granik’s feature debut (co-written with Richard Lieske) takes on a convincing air of cold, bone-deep misery through grainy handheld cinematography that never pushes its vérité style to the point of affectation. Rather, the director’s aesthetics create heightened intimacy for the story of Irene (Farmiga), a mother of two young boys who’s stuck in a loveless marriage to Steve (Clint Jordan) and who finds herself increasingly dependent on cocaine. That habit soon drives her to rehab, where she temporarily cleans herself up and, even more promising still, falls into a relationship with nurse Bob (Hugh Dillon), a man seemingly intent on helping her stay sober.
As it turns out, however, that’s not in the cards for Irene, thanks to Bob’s own struggles with heroin, and Down To The Bone follows its protagonist as she plummets into a morass of substance abuse and ensuing legal troubles. More heartbreaking still are the sights of Irene’s sons silently staring at their mother in various states of disrepair, their eyes wide with confusion, fear, and disappointment over circumstances they can’t quite grasp. Granik doesn’t plot her story with big dramatic twists so much as clearly hew to a realistic vision of what drugs do to people on an individual and familial level. In that endeavor, she’s aided by a riveting performance from Farmiga, whose restless demeanor and sorrowful countenance eloquently convey Irene’s discomfort in her own skin. Sympathetic to Irene without ever letting her off the hook for her own situation, Down To The Bone is an unforgettable tough-love portrait of self-destructiveness, and, later, of the difficulty of trying to put one’s self back together again.
Availability: Down To The Bone is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library.