Powered by what should have been a star-making performance by Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), “Down to the Bone” fits squarely into the second category. There are no Oscar-bait “Basketball Diaries” smack sickness enactments, no drunken meltdowns (Meg Ryan, anyone?), no “Buck Up, Little Toaster” speeches (a la Morgan Freeman in his “Clean and Sober” days). No, “Down to the Bone” cuts through all the histrionics — hence the title — and offers a bleak, unsparing and ultimately hopeful look at one woman’s struggle to reclaim sobriety.
A bored grocery store cashier, Irene (Farmiga) is an addict who epitomizes Matt Dillon’s “Drugstore Cowboy” philosophy: She snorts coke to cope with the everyday things, like grumbling managers, squabbling kids and an increasingly distant and clueless husband (Clint Jordan) who thinks his wife’s just a casual user. And Irene believes that, too — until she offers her dealer her son’s birthday check to buy coke. Finding herself smack at the bottom, she checks into rehab and meets an unlikely ally: Bob (Hugh Dillon), a nurse and recovering heroin addict. Both weary of life, both yearning for change, they strike up a friendship that quickly becomes — you guessed it — more amorous than either expected.
But please, I beg you, don’t go thinking this turns “Bone” into a Lifetime movie starring MBB (Meredith Baxter-Birney for those not in the know). In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Director Debra Granik handles Irene and Bob’s tenuous bond with effortless grace. Here is a real relationship, shaky and reassuring and frightening, where two people find each other because they share something that has shaped their lives for years: drug addiction. Their plain, unstilted conversations, their halting, shy touches — it’s all painfully awkward and painfully real, with no “When a Man Loves a Woman” schmaltz to color and muddy the real issues of the day-to-day drudgery of life without dope, without a coping mechanism. The relapse, though expected (relapse, after all, is more common than stone-cold sobriety), is that much more gut-wrenching because it’s real. Addiction is bleak, but so, too, is the constant struggle to overcome it — something that Granik gets absolutely right.
Granik’s no-frills direction (almost) pales in comparison, though, to the first-rate performances of Dillon and Farmiga. Dillon’s Bob is hardly a knight-in-shining-armor figure; he’s as damaged as Irene, but he considers his job — working with addicts in rehab — his penance. He’s guarded but friendly, and he opens up to Irene because he sees a kindred spirit, someone as bored with everyday life as he is. Dillon finds the right mix of world-weariness and hope, but he’s matched, frame for frame, by Farmiga. It’s hard to describe what she does so well in “Bone” because there will be people (ignore them; they’re a nuanceless, pedestrian group) who say she’s too low-key, too emotionless. But it’s that lack of visible emotion that makes Farmiga’s Irene so believable a character: She’s a woman who has maintained a secret life for over a decade. She reveals nothing about her true self to anyone until she meets Bob, and even then she holds back. The beauty of Farmiga’s character emerges in the subtleties: the way her eyes change when she looks at Bob or her children, her tentative friendship with a fellow recovering addict (Caridad de la Luz). It takes work to see it, but it’s worth the effort.
And maybe that’s what makes “Down to the Bone” so compelling: So much of the power is underneath the surface. It’s what you don’t see that kills you.