And the moral of the story is (yet again)... drugs are bad! The source of this oft-revisited revelation at hand is Down to the Bone, an indie, low budget affair that managed to snag a directing award at Sundance (it's only Debra Granik's second directing project). And while harping on the subject of drug addiction seems a prerequisite to all filmmakers' careers, Down thankfully refrains from overt clichés. The protagonist, Irene (a proficient Vera Farmiga), is the working-class mother of two boys, the wife of a deadbeat dabbler, and a cashier at the local grocery store. She also has a secret addiction to cocaine. However, unlike most drug films, Down's approach resembles realism; Irene checks herself into rehab out of guilt for trying to spend her son's birthday check on coke, not after a spectacular, cinematic rock-bottom moment.
This realism may be the film's greatest strength, handling its dramatic subject matter with a commendable moderation. But this plainness and lack of glamour pervades everything about it, from the dingy upstate New York setting to the nearly colorless cinematography. Even the romantic interest, Bob (Hugh Dillon), is lackluster, his whole world unintentionally appearing way out of date (soul patch, thick hoop earring, tacky vision of New York City as a vat of irresistible temptation, etc.). It is Bob, however—first introduced as a nurse and fellow recovering addict—who winds up as the central focus of Irene's chemical roller coaster.
Although constantly entwined with drugs, the budding romance between Bob and Irene is arguably the real meat of the film. As Irene circuitously spirals downward, the distinction between her connection with Bob and her connection with addiction becomes increasingly blurry, demonstrating the deceptive fragility of struggling addicts teamed up in a relationship. But this squeak of uniqueness doesn't save Down, which is full of mournful but empty moments and a futile pursuit of effective symbolism. (A pet snake is thrust into that role, to grave failure). The result is that Down is difficult to watch, requiring patience, the stamina for bleakness, and some tolerance for hearing an already tired moral one more time.