Great Films by Women – Down to the Bone

A few weeks ago, I went on a bit of a rant about acclaimed author/capital Douchebag Bret Easton Ellis’s comments regarding women film directors. At the end of said rant, I promised that this blog would soon be getting “really, really womany.” I’ve been delayed, but I have not forgotten this promise. This post begins a series that will highlight films I love that happen to have been directed by women. First up: Down to the Bone, an indie drama from 2004, directed and co-written by Debra Granik.

From the vantage point of 2010, there is one simple thing I can say about Down to the Bone that should be enough for me to get you to watch: it stars Vera Farmiga. If you have any doubt after her Oscar-nominated turn in Up in the Air that this woman is the real deal, well then Down to the Bone is not just recommended, but required. Many aspects of the film impress, but her performance entrances.

Irene is a mom of two young boys, about nine and seven years old. She and her husband scrape by as members of the working class in upstate New York, in a happyish, stableish marriage. He does some contracting work and tries to improve their house; she works in a supermarket. He smokes a little dope now and then. Irene is addicted to cocaine. The thing about cocaine is, it’s expensive. Irene is not so up-to-date on payments to her dealer.

This premise could easily swing into Requiem for a Dream territory, begging the viewer to feel shocked, disgusted, but maybe vicariously thrilled by the behavior of an addict. We don’t go there. The dealer asks Irene to leave his house. She comes back later with cash, and he firmly takes it in exchange for her debt and sends her on her way without new product. She flounces away in exasperation the way most of us would if, say, we wanted to return a shirt but had forgotten the receipt. Of course, Irene’s drama is not that simple. But her drama is with herself—not with the dealer, or the system, or with America, or with life. She ponders her various courses of action, as a cocaine addict with no immediate access to cocaine. She visits a state-run rehab center. She tells a counselor, answering routine questions, that her kids don’t notice her addiction. The counselor wonders if that could possibly be true. Irene checks in.

Here we go, though—the film is not a rehab drama any more than it was going to be an exposé about moms who snort. It is a character study in the most subtle and effective way I have ever known a character study to function. Are you waiting for the scene in group when Irene tells the other characters and the audience about the first time she tried coke? It never comes. How about when we learn about her sad childhood and how her dad was never around and mom drowned her sorrows in wine? Nuh-uh. I have never seen a film about an addict that lets itself simply tell the story at hand the way this one does. The film never manipulates us into feeling sorry for Irene, nor asks us to get on her side, nor makes her seem pathetic, nor glamorizes her life. Irene is Irene, and whatever the viewer thinks of her is what the viewer thinks of her.

Throughout all this, Vera Farmiga is incredible. Honestly, my eyes could not leave her. In this gray, drab, upstate-New-York-winter of a setting, she manages to be gray and drab and electrifying all at once. She never seems to be trying to emote a certain emotion at a certain time for the audience’s benefit (Irene is strong, Irene is vulnerable, Irene is confused, blah blah blah). She just always is Irene, who may be all of these things and may be none of these things at any given moment, but is always a complete person. Irene’s choices, attractions, and priorities will drive the story, and their validity never needs to be justified or vilified beyond Farmiga’s expression in any given moment.

Every element works in this film. Beyond Farmiga’s performance, also the supporting actors (particularly the young boys and Caridad de la Luz as a friend made in rehab), the script, the cinematography and the direction. This film reminds me of the more recent Frozen River, which shares a very similar tone and tells another story of a working class woman just making the best of it (and is another great film made by a woman: Courtney Hunt). I feel sure it must have been an inspiration.

Watch this movie. It is currently available on Netflix Instant. Debra Granik’s newest film, Winter’s Bone (not a sequel, just a coincidentally similar title) is in theaters now. Much Oscar talk abounds, especially for its lead actress. With this as its precursor, I can’t wait to go.


1 Response to “Great Films by Women – Down to the Bone”

  1. 1 Jared July 26, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I watched this on your recommendation, and agree that Vera’s character is very well written and acted incredibly well. It’s hard for me to say what the director did to make the character, however, because I just don’t know what the character would look like if directed by a man (or a different woman). Here I’ll say that Vera’s character stood in stark contrast to her lover’s, which was shallow and meaninfully undeveloped. I thought the boys and the latina friend were great though.

    The scene at the NA meeting where the daughter presents her dad with a one-year birthday cake was very touching.

    Great film. I’ll look forward to the next Netflix On Demand recommendation — I just subscribed!

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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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