Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Down to the Bone"

When we meet Irene, the working-class heroine of Debra Granik's stunning 2004 addiction saga, she's getting her kids ready for Halloween. This first scene expresses two of the film's main themes: the act of hiding behind a false face, and the attempts of a fundamentally good person to do the best with what she has in front of her. Irene's older son, dressed in a pretty good Houdini costume, doesn't really want to go trick-or-treating at all; her younger one, who didn't get the costume he wanted, seems equally unenthusiastic. Irene tries to get them excited about the holiday, but her show of excitement is forced and nervous. We soon realize why she's anxious: She's due for a snort of cocaine. When she retires to the bathroom to get it, her older son stands outside the door. He wants to know what's going on, but we sense that he's already all too aware.

Down to the Bone is set in upstate New York, in the bleak midwinter. The film looks grainy, which isn't artifice but a testament to its low budget. (It was produced with assistance from the Sundance Institute.) Vera Farmiga plays Irene, and she's as good as everyone says. I've been interested in Farmiga ever since I read Lynn Hirschberg's terrific New York Times Magazine article about the dearth of strong female roles in Hollywood films these days. Hirschberg portrays Farmiga as a case in point: She's an actress of prodigious talent who wishes she could be the next Meryl Streep, but the parts simply aren't there. She can toil in no-budget pictures of great artistic integrity that nearly no one sees, or she can try to keep her head high through trash like Orphan, one of 2009's most-ridiculed movies.

Of course there are roles in between -- her turn in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed won deserved critical acclaim, and she does astounding things with a less-than-amazing part in Wayne Kramer's loopy action flick Running Scared -- but that isn't the point. The point is that in the '70s and '80s, an actress like Streep could make a career out of meaty roles with minimal slumming. As Hirschberg notes:
As recently as the 80’s, women were often the sole stars of mainstream studio movies like “Terms of Endearment,” “Moonstruck” and “Out of Africa.” For years before, from Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” to Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn in countless roles to Jane Fonda in “Klute” or Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” actresses carried films to box-office success. But today, women in mainstream films more often populate the margins as girlfriends, mothers and wives, often with stereotypical personalities.
Bone resembles SherryBaby (2006), which starred Maggie Gyllenhaal and also delved sensitively and intelligently into the life of a troubled young woman looking for a way out of her woes. Though the two films share both plot points and themes, Granik's feels even more real. She uses mundane settings to tremendous effect, familiarizing us with the minutiae of Irene's everyday life in a way that sticks with us long after the closing credits.

The movie depicts its secondary characters with great respect and even-handedness. Irene's beleaguered husband, Steve (Clint Jordan), is both out of touch with her needs and worthy of our compassion; the man she's got her eye on, Bob (Hugh Dillon), a struggling ex-addict, is a liar but also, ultimately, a good man in the same way that she's a good woman. Dillon deftly balances Bob's charm and deceptiveness, and Granik refuses to make him a villain. Because of this, his future and Irene's remain uncertain at the end of the film, which makes its depiction of drug dependency feel all the more accurate.

The song "Point of Disgust," by Low, plays over the end credits, and both lyrics and music -- spare, melancholy, faintly hopeful -- fit the movie so perfectly that they might have been written specifically for it (though, in fact, they weren't). It's worth mentioning as well that the young actors who play Irene's sons are both superbly cast and exceedingly well directed. Their utterly believable performances add to the film's emotional complexity. When one of Irene's rehab counselors asks her why she's trying to kick drugs, she says it's for her kids. His response reveals just how nuanced Granik's movie truly is.

Bone is riveting throughout because it contains not one wasted scene, and hardly a wasted word; it's compelling also because Farmiga gives a masterful performance without a shred of vanity. Here's hoping someone, sometime soon, writes another role she's truly worthy of.

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