Down to the Bone (Debra Granik, 2004)
I watched Winter’s Bone earlier this week and was wowed by it, so I immediately went back and queued up Down to the Bone, Granik’s first feature. Bonus points: it stars the wonderful Vera Farmiga (Orphan). I’ve seen some mediocre movies featuring Vera Farmiga, but I’ve never seen her turn in a mediocre performance. Unfortunately, this is one of those times when she really stands out in a piece; this is an extension of Granik’s 1997 short Snake Feed, and it shows.
Plot: Irene (Farmiga) is living below the poverty line in a crappy little town in the middle of nowhere, trying to support two kids and a secret coke habit on her salary working as a cashier at a local grocery store (one of the movie’s running jokes: “Do you have an advantage card?” “No.” “Eh, I don’t either…”). After a desperate night trying to use her kid’s birthday check in order to buy cocaine, she realizes she’s out of control and checks herself into rehab, where she meets Bob (Hard Core Logo‘s High Dillon), a nurse and ex-addict she’d previously run into at a Halloween party. Thanks to a lot of therapy and (in no small part) Bob’s support, she manages to get clean—but when she gets out again, the pressures of daily life are always urging her back.
It’s a very, very well-kept secret in today’s society that a lot of addicts, no matter what their drug of choice, are functioning members of society; the late Peter McWilliams, in his book Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do, cites an estimate that just six percent of addicts are of the non-functional variety painted large across the media we consume every day. And I applaud Granik for understanding this and building Irene and her husband Steve (The Motel‘s Clint Jordan), as functional a pair of addicts as you are likely to ever see in the media. The problem is that movies that depict functional members of society are, well, kind of boring; that’s a big part of the reason that movies depicting non-functional addicts have been box office manna from heaven ever since The Man with the Golden Arm. We spend a lot of time getting to know Irene and her family, and, well, some of it is time well spent, but a lot of it is Granik building the routine, showing us the idea that Irene is functional, and dammit, as much as I love that this exists, I’m not all that hot to watch it again, you know? The second half of the movie picks up (though trying to be as non-spoilery as possible, I hate why it picks up, and I hate myself a little for liking that it picked up, even given the reason it did), and ultimately, I think that does make it worth watching. But as I said at the top of the hour, this is a feature-length extension of a short; the seams show a little too much to make it as good as it could have been, and given Winter’s Bone, we know it could have been very good indeed. ***