Like Junebug, this year’s other laconic regionalist gem, Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone lets stirring location shots convey some weighty themes. The milieu here is New York’s Ulster County, idyllic summer haven for well-heeled Gothamites and year-round rut for blue-collar communities struggling with distended industrial decline. We open on a slushy supermarket parking lot, drop-ceilinged by the kind of foggy clouds that hang low over wintry Catskill valleys. Other than the prattle over a staticky car radio, the first human utterance is cashier-protagonist Irene’s rote query to her grocery line customer, “Do you have an advantage card?”
Granik is perhaps overly enamored with lines like these and their visual equivalents—most obviously the American flags adorning homes far outside this nation’s capitalist winner’s circle. But any such punctuation in this tale of everyday addiction is mitigated by her refusal to turn Irene’s slippery-slope tragedy into a tantrum. As Irene, an unhappily married mother of two young boys, Vera Farmiga embodies the fatigued beauty of a ground-down good-time girl. Her and her husband’s drug use is thrillingly understated. When she’s had a hard day, she calmly asks him to bring her home “a little somethin’.” When he doesn’t, she bummed-ly licks the foil from her last batch of coke, then feels like a jerk when she tries to buy more the following day with her son’s birthday money.
Most addiction flicks track the spiral, with rehab as rescue. But Granik’s movie is really about working-class poverty, and for a woman like Irene, trying to avoid using means imperiling a job, disrupting a necessary support system, upsetting the balance that ironically makes life work. Like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, this film has an ear for the way moms talk to kids, a sensitivity to drug-sweetened intimacies, and an appreciation of the urgent nuance, not just the comedy, of recovery-speak.
This humanism allows Granik to pull off heavy-handed maneuvers—entangling Irene in an affair with a nurse (Hugh Dillon) to let us in on the bleakness of hospital life; using group therapy to evidence the diverse face of upstate poverty; sending Irene on a housecleaning job to dig at the depressed region’s luxury condo boom; allowing a pet snake’s feeding ritual to symbolize dream suffocation. But it all works, and when one of Irene’s recovery pals matter-of-factly confesses to the group, “I just feel more comfortable high,” it’s nothing less than a lacerating indictment of a culture that worships confidence while limiting all but the emptiest means of achieving it.