Down to the Bone is the 2005 independent film drama by Debra Granik that tells the story of a woman ensnared; mother and wife, lover and addict, her roles are as indispensable as costume jewelry and worn without regard for fashion or the opinions of others. Directed and co-written by Granik, the film won the Sundance Film Festival Director’s Award for Granik and Special Jury Prize for star Vera Farmiga (Up In The Air). The film takes place in a wintry upstate New York, though unlike her follow-up Winter’s Bone (2010), the climate is less a sense of place and character as temperature, as the frigid space between forlorn lovers and the airy chasm that threatens life and limb as fueled by drug addiction and emotional vacancy. Down to the Bone is not a title as much as a declaration; this is paucity personified and minutiae examined.
There is no denying the critical success of the film, garnering two of the highest honors at Sundance, buoyant among critics; the film hardly dips below the century mark. Lavished with praise for its portraiture of barren realism and exacting honesty, the story is reduced to tiny moments as if to peer into the gaze of the invisible would return anything but what we place there. If to make a voyeur of the audience were Granik’s intent, you would find plenty of opportunity to perch outside snowy windows, huddle for coffee and cigarettes in the dingy back room of Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and stare through steamy car windows for tiny glimpses; yet you would come no closer to knowing these people any more than you would wave to your neighbors once a morning who have lived across the street from you for a decade. These characters are held at arm’s length or further, rough sketches that look like faces you might know but not really know. From a distance the result is distortion, indistinct if not dissimilar from any number of a dozen other films about drugs and alcohol abuse. The far-reaching emotional, physical and psychological damage associated with addiction of any kind is toilsome and vicious but Granik prefers her characters to wear their scars on the inside, marginalized and often bereft of visual detail.
It is clear Granik builds her characters from the inside out, trace elements of history and experience expressed quickly with less regard for specificity as how familiar and available they are to the audience. Granik employs blank stares with nowhere jobs, picture postcard snowy landscapes with the criss-crosses of roads that connect as much as separate cities and states and seasons. Addicts are mothers and hapless husbands are lost in the least bit of intimacy as desperation makes a shambles of childhood memories. These are not newly discovered countries unto themselves but Granik isn’t interested in newness but rather the hollowing of people to get at their dreams and catch the attention of those frightened by the possibility of their existence. Perhaps living isn’t quite the tidy thing it is sometimes made out to be and while carefully contained, Down to the Bone is not so much a film as an exercise in mendacity and all the ways we convince ourselves of the truths we need to make the world a place we can live in. If Down to the Bone falters it is in pursuit of this ‘down to the bone’ realism, in the everydayness and what we don’t see and how scars work their way to the surface no matter how hard we resist. That’s a tough thing to capture on celluloid or video. Here it would seem Granik prefers a more sanitized looking wounding, a scab or bandage that hints at something deeper, wounds cauterised by ordinary people until stumbling opens them up again and ultimately there is falling down, again.
G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle called this film “pitch perfect and realistic” as though “you are there with these people watching their lives unfold.” Perhaps this is the extent of Mr. Johnson’s proximity to poverty and drug addiction and maybe he is better for having no such immediate grasp of the complexities and simplicities of such things. Maybe his idea of voyeurism is to watch that which one cannot obtain or lacks the ambition to reach out for, and in this comfortable distance judge the film without every truly have had fully experienced it. Observational and realistic seem hardly descriptors for an active engagement of a film about wounds that bury themselves to the bone.
Gene Seymour of Newsday describes Down to the Bone as steering clear from “heavy-handed” and “simplistic” but in the same breath he breezes over the significance of drug addiction as a character and misses completely the clichéd NA meetings and the ensuing affair that never fully arrives anywhere. As much as this film is a powerful mining of human emotions and tragic mid-flight collisions, there are things that don’t always fit well. At times the film seems more like a picture puzzle picked up a rummage sale, the box taped together, a crayon price tag; once you get it home you realize there aren’t enough pieces. There are a dozen loose ends in the film, some character, some story, and very often plot holes that threaten to sink the film entirely if not for the casual way in which Farmiga makes common an expression and gives breath to the absurd. It remains unclear, however, how stuck Irene (Farmiga) is in her hapless marriage or to what extent her role as mother, wife, lover, and drug addict slows the steady and inevitable spiral of her life or the lives of those around her. This is not new territory nor is it particularly inventive but these are matters of taste and not so much the function of how the film finally delivers us as it arrived with more questions and fewer answers and either a starting place or destination is left up to the viewer.
Winter is a recurring theme for Granik. The season appears in her follow-up film, Winter’s Bone (2010) to which I reviewed here. Like its successor, Winter is both a season and a place, perhaps a character of some regard as it chills and informs, as it keeps some things close and others apart. Down to the Bone is not a film that will resonate with every viewer or one that can explore to any lasting and all-encompassing detail the personal experience of living in such a world as portrayed in the story. These characters are slightly more refined, grounded even, pouring over the slightest of shadows and footfalls as though everydayness still holds the awe and wonderment it did as a child when wintry landscapes were a place of excitement before you heard your mother’s voice calling you in before the next heavy snow.