BLOG: The REAL Shit: Down to the Bone and the Drug Addiction Film

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The REAL Shit: Down to the Bone and the Drug Addiction Film

The depiction of drug addiction in film has lead to some truly harrowing scenes over the years.  Think of Trainspotting, where heroin junkie Rent dries out in his childhood bedroom with the door locked from the outside, his dope sickness coming on with visions of the corpse of a baby, whose death he was partially responsible for, edging ever closer to him as he sweats it out in his bed.  Recall Drugstore Cowboy, when our band of pharmacy-robbing outlaws are forced to sneak the body of one of their own out of a motel crawling with cops after the girl has OD’d.

Or in Jesus’ Son when Fuckhead and Georgie pop pills and make it their mission to save some baby rabbits, only for them to get smooshed in Fuckhead’s jacket when he nods out.  And who could forget the multiple shitty fates that befall the characters in Requiem for Dream which includes dismemberment for one, institutionalization for another and double-edged dildoing at a scummy private party for a third.

But though I have a lot of love for all of those films, for this post I want to focus on a far more low-key drug addiction film that hasn’t gotten its due: Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone.  Granik’s name is normally associated with another fine skeletally-titled film by the name of Winter’s Bone, but as strong as that film is I prefer her ridiculously assured debut starring Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up In The Air).

Farmiga plays Irene, a cashier at a supermarket in upstate New York who lives with her husband and their two young boys.  She and her husband have been partying since high school but of late her coke habit has been getting out of hand, her low-point being when she tries to give her dealer her son’s birthday check from Grandma as payment, the sadness really hitting home when the dealer won’t even accept it, partly because, you know, it’s a check but also because it says happy birthday to her kid in the memo line.

Irene uses her vacation time at work and checks into a shabby in-patient rehab, meeting some new friends and a handsome, friendly nurse who becomes her sponsor when she leaves the clinic far before she’s ready.  Shit gets hairy quicker than she expects in the real world, as her lethargic, non-coked up state loses Irene her focus at work and then the job itself, her husband being of no help as he still tokes and bumps into the wee hours with their friends at the house, right in front of her.  Such events push her into the bed of her sponsor, who may not have his shit as under control as she first thinks, leading to Irene using once again.

Where the films listed up top are often heavily stylized and intense, attempting to give the viewer an especially visceral slant on the misery of drug abuse, Down to the Bone takes it easy with the fireworks and is a better movie for it.  When Irene is coked up she isn’t like the motormouth douchebag at the bar but normal – a little sharper and happier but not noticeably fucked up.  She’s snorting to get by, to be level, not to run around the house smoking cigarettes and talking about the cops being outside – she knows they’re out there!  During their Thanksgiving dinner when everybody busts out their pills and coke, nobody goes fuckin’ crazy but instead just hang out like you would expect any group of guests would.

And when she’s drying out off coke she doesn’t thrash and scream while her body begs for more, she’s just agitated and restless, cranky and short with her children.  There’s no sweaty-sheets freak-outs in the rehab scenes, just a lot of smoking and talking bullshit with the other patients, all of them trying to focus on anything else but using again.

In addition to keeping the performances and script at an authentic, recognizable tone, Granik also doesn’t go in for visual flourishes and other loud stylistics.  The film taking place in upstate New York from Halloween and on into the early spring, gray skies and snow provide for one helluva bleak color palette in the numerous exterior shots, the snow glare bleeding through the windows in the daytime interiors and the dark extra-punishing in the night-time ones.

Said interiors are also lacking in flair, with not a single set (I’d be surprised if there was any scene not shot on location) feeling like anything but a real small-town business or lower-middle class home.  There are no junkie squats or shit shacks in this film’s world, just sad, relatable reality for miles in every direction.

But though Down to the Bone is aiming for a sober and unglamorous truth unmatched by few addict films, don’t let that lead you to believe this film isn’t endlessly exciting in its own un-showy way.  By taking all the histrionics out of the drug abuse sub-genre, Down to the Bone feels consistently fresh and new scene to scene.

Granik draws you in with her non-judgmental, immediate-but-not-overtly-so look at her deeply flawed character, and Farmiga’s beautifully restrained performance makes you squirm in your seat, fingers crossed she’ll make it out of her self-inflicted hell alive.  It’s only after you’ve finished watching the film that you slowly start to realize that her hell looks like a place you could easily walk to from your house.



  1. Dado says:

    “her hell looks like a place you could easily walk to from your house.”

    Nicely put.

    I like the review overall too.