Irene (Vera Farmiga) lives in upstate New York with her husband Steve (Clint Jordan) and two sons. Her job as a grocery clerk doesn’t provide enough money to support her secret cocaine habit, so she tries skimming money from her son’s birthday checks, among other places. Raising kids is tough enough without worrying about your next fix, she realizes, and to her credit she decides to check herself into rehab. Given the price of cocaine, I might’ve eased out of things by switching to something like crank, but cold turkey’s probably just as good.
While getting clean, Irene meets Bob (Hugh Dillon) a nurse at the clinic. The two strike up a friendship, finding common ground thanks to Bob’s past as a drug abuser. The two begin an ill-advised affair, and Irene eventually falls off the wagon in a big way. Before long, the two run afoul of the law, which has serious repercussions on Irene’s marriage, her relationship with her children, and both their lives.
The deliberate pace of “Down to the Bone” helps the story play out in a natural, if occasionally glacial, fashion. Granik’s decision to use real locations grounds the story as well, and ultimately allows the audience to become immersed in the dead-end world the characters occupy. But the film’s real strength lies in its lack of pat resolutions. Happy endings are somewhat hard to find as everyone is forced to deal with each of their particular failings in their own way.
Sympathy is hard to come by for most of the people in the movie. Drugs are bad, as “South Park’s” Mr. Garrison is wont to tell us, and “Down to the Bone” occasionally falls into the trap that snares other movies its ilk: the seemingly endless stream of narcotic-based missteps taken by the characters make it difficult to keep dredging up understanding for them.
Strong performances from Vera Farmiga and Hugh Dillon keep things from becoming overdramatic, however. The fact that Farmiga looks a lot like Fiona Apple’s older sister doesn’t hurt her portrayal, and she brings needed weight to a role that could easily have become maudlin. Granik based the events in the film on actual people and events, initially intending to put together a documentary on her subjects before writing a dramatic script based on their lives. All this helps “Down to the Bone” achieve a resonance rarely found in similar films without becoming bogged down in cliché.