A film like "Down to the Bone," about the stark reality of drug addiction, couldn't be set in spring or summer. To get the full impact, you need the desolation of winter: the barren trees, the bleak skies, the grayish slush on the sidewalks.
I feel chilly after watching the film, and not (just) because the heat in my apartment is erratic. It's set in the dark winter months in New York state, a time when even an optimist might find himself feeling a little hopeless. Directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Richard Lieske, the movie boasts a fantastic performance by Vera Farmiga and an exceedingly unhappy storyline. It's a movie you "appreciate" more than you "enjoy."
Farmiga plays Irene, a drab housewife and grocery store clerk who, when the film begins, is already deep in the throes of a cocaine addiction. Her husband, Steve (Clint Jordan), enables her and parties with her sometimes, though his addiction doesn't seem as powerful as hers. Their two little boys are either unaware of Mom's illness or consider it normal.
Less than 20 minutes into the film, Irene enters rehab. She befriends a male nurse there, Bob (Hugh Dillon), who's a recovering addict himself. After she gets cleaned up, they attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings together. They have more in common than Irene and her husband do, if only because Irene's husband isn't trying to go straight.
Though I can't directly empathize, I suspect the film gets the details of addiction and post-addiction recovery just about right. The way junkies lie to each other and themselves, the way simple things like the smell of Windex can ignite old cravings, the way addicts will get off dope and become hooked on cigarettes or sex instead, just trading one addiction for another, it's all here in the film, shot in the verité shaky-camera style that is typical of this genre.
It's ultimately not a new or different film. It follows the general pattern of most addiction dramas, including the backslide that occurs at the 60-minute mark. What makes it work is Farmiga's realistic performance. Without grandstanding or overacting, she conveys Irene's addiction believably while keeping all the conflicting emotions -- love for her children, physical cravings for the drug -- in check. A lesser actress would have made the thing maudlin or (considering its slow-moving plot) boring. It's worth watching if only just for her.
There are no subtitles or alternate language tracks.
VIDEO: The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is more than adequate, with no significant grain or blemishes in the picture. The cinematography is intentionally dreary, but the colors "pop" when they're supposed to.
AUDIO: Good Dolby Digital Stereo mix.
EXTRAS: The first extra is the 1997 short film, "Snake Feed," that inspired "Down to the Bone." It's an interesting artifact in that while it deals with drug addiction in a depressing small town, the story and characters are completely different.
The other extra is a commentary by director Debra Granik and star Vera Farmiga. They remind me a bit of NPR's "Delicious Dish" (or, rather, SNL's parody of it), chatting in whispery voices about character motivations and emotional wells and the ambience you get when the ice is melting and crackling on the roof over you. I picture them wearing bulky sweaters and drinking hot cocoa while they talk.
The commentary itself is interesting enough, if a little froofy artsy-fartsy in places. They discuss the process of the film in depth, including the way real life figured into it (some characters are based on real people) and how much improvisation was involved.
This is not a movie you'll watch again and again. Farmiga's performance is fantastic, and it will carry you through one viewing. But the film isn't stellar, and the DVD treatment is sparse, so there's no reason to buy it.