Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 19, 2005 9:04 pm 
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Good but grim realistic drug story

Down to the Bone is about Irene (Vera Farmiga) and Bob (Hugh Dillon) who relapse together after getting clean from drugs. Irene is a supermarket cashier and is married to Steve (Clint Jordan), who’s friendly but clueless about addiction, since he enables Irene thoughtlessly both before and after recovery. They have two little boys.

The first thing you notice is how effortlessly natural Farmiga is in her scenes with the boys. It gradually sinks in also that this movie avoids drug rehab clichés. Irene isn’t having wild fun. All she needs is a little bit to get by – every day. When her stash runs out, she gets anxious; and when she tries to use grandma’s birthday check for one of the boys to score and gets rebuffed by her dealer, she checks into a realistically ugly and ordinary rehab program. Down to the Bone also excels for the specific feel of its upstate New York locations.

Appropriately, this gray, hard time of Irene’s rehab and her attempt to stay clean comes in the long upstate winter. A male nurse named Bob met Irene at Halloween and then there was a little sizzle of attraction, the lighting of cigarettes. Bob turns out to be working at the rehab clinic and takes a personal interest – too personal – in her. At first he does all the right things – or does he? He gets a little too close on institutional time.

Irene leaves rehab too soon – after only one week – because of her job and kids. She can’t handle her job straight and gets fired from the store. Irene’s Latina pal from rehab, Lucy (Caridad de la Cruz), who cleans houses with her after that, warns her she’s “thirteenth-stepping” – a 12-step term meaning to risk clean time in risky romancing with another recovering addict – in this case Bob – to fill the big void left when drugs are withdrawn.

Bob is an interesting, specific person. Hugh Dillon’s performance is up to the level of Farmiga’s. Originally the model or recovery, Bob’s improper “thirteenth-stepping” relationship with Irene – which she initiates – but both are ready for this mistake – leads him back to a worse addiction than hers – heroin – which he’s been off of for five years. Together, they are poison for each other. They soon get into a situation leading to an arrest for possession. They drive to the city and she gets a piercing and they buy the boys the pet snake they’ve been wanting. While she’s being pierced, Bob scores a bag and goes back out. After the arrest, Steve kicks Irene out. She gets a suspended sentence with treatment, including rehab and 250 hours of NA meetings in a year. If she deviates, she goes to jail.

This may be it, the “bottom” leading to lasting recovery for Irene. But this is a knowing and realistic version of the drug recovery experience and it lacks simple climaxes or redemptions. Irene is still cleaning houses with Lucy, still dealing with her kids and their pet snake (which becomes an obvious, if gentle, symbol of temptation), and Bob’s still around “”helping” along his Methadone doses with illegally acquired barbiturates and lying to Irene about it.

As the film ends, Irene kicks Bob out of her house and he says “I’ll never get clean alone.” Catch-22: he’ll never get clean with her, either.

Down to the Bone, though indie gold, is, frankly, only a tiny blip on the big screen. Though it won prizes at Sundance few will see it or want to. Though it achieves a remarkable degree of authenticity, it could use some sharper editing – and some smiles. For addicts ready for recovery, getting high usually has stopped being fun. But this movie forgets that it ever was fun, and strangers to the drug life may wonder what’s going on here. But then, they never do understand: that’s why there are 12-step meetings, which the movie might have said more about, since most addicts who make it, in America anyway, do it through the Twelve Steps, going to meetings, getting a sponsor, and working the steps. Rehab alone rarely does the trick. This is the kind of movie that, for good or ill, Sundance loves but mainstream audiences avoid. It’s very good, but also very grim.

©Chris Knipp 2005

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