Written by: Debra Granik & Richard Lieske
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Hugh Dillon, Clint Jordan, Caridad de la Luz, Jasper Daniels
Caring for children comes with its own challenges, which only get worse if the parent can barely take care of themselves. In the case of Down to the Bone, this gets seen through a mother trying to help provide for her family while fighting off a drug addiction that has been ailing her for quite a while. Gritty, honest, and everything Debra Granik will continue to do in her career gets displayed in this somber film.
As a mother of two boys in Upstate New York, Irene (Vera Farmiga) works as a cashier and has trouble managing her responsibilities with her cocaine addiction. This sees her desperately trying to find ways to get her next fix while being a supportive mother to her kids and a dutiful wife to her husband.
Hopelessly bleak at times but with a glimmer of humanity peaking out, watching Down to the Bone feels frustrating for most of its runtime because of this unending battle Irene takes on with her drug addiction. I found myself trying to will her into stopping this destructive behavior and supporting her sons, but the battle with addiction does not come with such simplicity. It’s a path filled with ebbs and flows where progress gets made and can get shattered with one bad step. A lifelong journey and the empathetic look this film provides into the life of Irene measures out the bleakness with plenty of love.
Irene’s cocaine addiction surely does not appear in the same glamorous way wealthy people enjoy it, but it shows the working-class struggle of this battle. Her job barely covers enough to take care of her family, and it certainly will not be able to supplement a drug addiction as well. Failing to have the proper funds shows the desperate things Irene is willing to do in order to get her next fix, which includes taking money given to her kids for their birthday to pay for it. This moment might have been the lowest, seeing as it was a check and she could not hide the intention as the payee is written on the piece of paper. Having to resort to using that source of money cannot feel good and it makes a discernible impact on Irene.
The roller coaster ride of her battling this addiction shows the ups and downs of getting clean. Irene has moments where it appears she has hit a breakthrough and turned the corner, but the influences around her pull her back in. It’s heartbreaking to watch because her decisions not only impact her will-being but also of her kids, which comes when taking the responsibility of being a parent. Every decision she makes will in some way impact the lives of her children and when in search of the next hit, she certainly does not make the best choices.
Vera Farmiga works wonders in this role, as she encapsulates the struggle of battling this addiction and how it impacts her character. It serves as her breakout role justifiably, as it comes with the challenge of discussing a difficult subject. At times her character can be too frustrating to support because she actively hurts her family and their future whenever she goes for the next hit or breaks sobriety. However, Farmiga grounds the character and beautifully captures her struggle in a way where we cannot give up on her and she deserves so much of the credit for the way the character comes together.
As a feature film debut, Debra Granik does a respectable job in portraying the working-class struggle of drug addiction. The options of attending an expensive rehabilitation center are off the cards for Irene, meaning she needs to figure it out with the resources available to her. The area she lives in does not offer world-class amenities, but it works for what she needs. Granik will prove to make a career of highlighting those who never get the attention or stories told about them. Whether it be a struggling family in Kentucky in Winter’s Bone or a father and daughter duo living on the fringes in Leave No Trace. Her empathy as a filmmaker contributes to the effectiveness of her storytelling as it shows the vulnerability of these characters but does not judge them too harshly. If anything, as an audience member, I was more frustrated than the narrative because this struggle is hard to overcome and this film displays it in painstaking detail.
While being hard to sit through, Down to the Bone tells an important story about the difficulty of fighting off an addiction. No frills or extremely overly dramatic moments where the characters lose it, this film tells an honest and necessary story. It gives us an introduction to an important filmmaker in Debra Granik and allowed Vera Farmiga to break out and be the wonderful actor she has become ever since.