Monday, January 17, 2011

Rent this movie? Down to the Bone

Still from "Down to the Bone," All rights reserved

"Down to the Bone" is director Debra Granik's 1st feature ( last year's surprise hit, "Winter's Bone," was her 2nd). Made in 2005, "Down to..." stars Vera Famiga as Irene, a mother of two young boys in upstate New York with a dead-end job, a feckless husband & a cocaine habit. Irene checks into a rehab, gets clean &, against advice, returns too soon to her cash-strapped, overburdened life. No one in the small-time rural drug scene she comes from has any idea what she's up against; her creepy husband gets her high because he hopes it will make her want sex. Irene returns to the N.A. meetings at the rehab, where she gets support from Bob (Hugh Dillon), a former heroin addict, now solidly clean & working as a nurse to the other addicts. Irene falls for him. And Bob, who knows better, can't seem to help himself...

Anyone watching this movie can easily spot the foolish choices Irene & Bob make & foresee their tragic results. But Granik never allows us to feel superior. These two don't lack experience or willpower & their determination is real. In the end, the unbreakable grip of their compulsion is simply a fact. And human love, by itself, is not enough to change it.

"Down to the Bone" is as unsparing about the realities of addiction as it refuses to be didactic about recovery. I can't recall a movie that comes closer than this one to the grinding low-grade misery of wanting to get high -- knowing you can't handle it -- &, in a moment of pure insanity, doing it anyway.

After hard-won years staying clean, Bob shoots up at exactly the moment it seems he might have a real-life basis for hope. Irene -- left behind, distraught -- picks up the needle & follows him into the abyss. Bob tells her not to; they both know it's folly. And we're horrified too, but not surprised. We're allowed to see that their crazy act also promises a kind of peace ... as the hippies once used the word. For a short time the heroin gives them peace. Peace. And love? ... They have that too. It's not all you need. But the lovers at least are together.

Granik & the actors don't shy away from the perverse comfort of this. After their inevitable bust, Irene & Bob are arrested & cuffed by NYC cops. Still high, awaiting their fates on a station house bench, they press their bodies together, eyes closed, like babies seeking their mommies.

A passing cop matter-of-factly yanks them apart.

Based on more than three years of documentary research & set in real locations, DP Michael McDonough's stripped-down, mostly handheld video is relentlessly intimate as it follows the small cast's lives through shabby rooms & soggy parking lots edged with piles of dirty snow. Only inside moving cars are the cameras allowed to wander. Peering through grime-specked windows, as wipers push muddy mist aside, the lenses seem to marvel at fields & houses flipping past against wintry gray skies. It's a hyper real style that somehow -- maybe because I've become accustomed to Hollywood's overlit, too-perfect sets -- took on a dreamlike quality.

"Vera Farmiga," "Down to the Bone," All rights reserved.

Finally, a word about Vera Farmiga. I can't get her out of my head. I first saw her in the recent "Up in the Air," where she was glamorous & self-assured, a worthy comic foil to George Clooney's debonair super-traveler. In this film she's a bedraggled, working class country mom, a supermarket check-out girl, her lank hair sloppily pinned-up, her mouth turned down in defensive cynicism.

Playing Irene, Farmiga is no movie star. Her sylphlike beauty seems lost in scene after scene. But you don't forget her eyes. Shaped like almonds, a vivid green-blue, they register her tense, intelligent character's anger & bewilderment. And especially her pain. By the time this movie reached the final ambiguous scene, brilliantly played between Irene & Bob through a closed, slotted-glass backdoor, I wanted to cry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review, Tim. Makes me want to see the film.

I was thinking the woman's face reminds me of old civil war photos I've seen of soldiers who were at their wit's end. That same sort of desolation-strength combination...