Through the years, there has been a proliferation of addiction drama. It's hard to imagine someone coming up with a new angle--there is addiction leading to destruction and addiction leading to rehabilitation. In either case, the addiction drama can be very alluring to the "serious" actor. What a great opportunity to showcase your acting chops--emotional devastation, a life spiraling out of control. Just think of all the actors who have received accolades (and deservedly so, for the most part) for exposing this unseemly underbelly of the human existence. What is a refreshing surprise about both "Down To The Bone" and Vera Farmiga's performance are how natural, straightforward, and understated they are.
Farmiga plays Irene, a wife and mother of two. A functional addict with a job as a supermarket checker, Irene realizes that her addiction is compromising a normal childhood for her children. Even though her husband is also a user, Irene takes steps to clean up her life when she hits a low point by stealing her daughter's birthday check to try and score a fix. The film documents her progress through a rehab program and the subsequent outpatient meetings as she attempts a drug free life. These scenes are played with a simplicity and earnestness. They are very naturalistic and the others involved play as real people instead of character types. There is no emotional grandstanding, just real individuals trying to get a grip on life--however fleeting that control may be. Connecting with a male nurse (and former heroin addict) at the rehab facility, Hugh Dillon in a great performance, Irene sees a success story and perhaps a chance at a clean life.
Not everything is easy on the outside, though, it never is. Struggling with her job (she loses efficiency when she's not stoned), a non-supportive husband, and a potential new love interest--Irene's life is a complicated as ever. But she must make changes in order to survive and succeed. Through it all, the subtlety of Farmiga's performance keeps you invested in her story. Not a hero, not a villain--she's a messed-up protagonist who makes mistakes. Farmiga doesn't need big moments to convey the complexity of Irene, and this is surely the performance of a major talent.
Director Debra Granik has made a stunningly simple film about a very difficult topic. By allowing Farmiga to develop Irene as a real person and peel away vanity and "staginess," "Down to the Bone" emerges as a sincere, relevant, and understated examination of the functioning addict. I look forward to seeing more work from Granik and Farmiga (who got a big role in "The Departed" after this film that only showcases a fraction of her apparent talent). KGHarris, 02/07.