Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Overlooked Gems #52: Down to the Bone

Grade: 69 (B)

I’m not sure what’s taking Debra Granik so long to make another film, but she’s certainly great at stoking anticipation. 2010’s Winter’s Bone was more than a Sundance breakout hit: it’s easily one of the best films of the new decade, a smart and tightly-wound backwoods noir filled with subtle yet towering performances. Granik’s creation of a lived-in, realistic world for the tension-packed film was particularly stunning considering that she had only made one film before, 2004’s little-seen Down to the Bone (let’s hope that the 2004-2010 gap doesn’t set precedent). Granik’s debut isn’t half the masterpiece Winter’s Bone is, but it’s still a striking and often powerful film that shows that Granik’s was a talent just waiting to be discovered.

On the surface, grocery-store worker Irene (Vera Farmiga) is a normal young woman and responsible mother of two young boys. Irene lives a hard life, however: she has a secret cocaine habit that she hides, not too successfully, from her sons. When her dealer turns her away for having too large a tab, Irene decides to get her life back on track and enroll in a rehabilitation program. With the help of the understanding former-addict nurse Bob (Hugh Dillon), Irene gets clean, but life on the outside is unforgiving, and Irene is constantly on the verge of screwing up again.

I’ll reveal the major caveat to Down to the Bone right now: the film looks like absolute garbage. That’s not a slight against Granik or cinematographer Michael McDonough, who later re-teamed on the gorgeous-looking Winter’s Bone. Granik and McDonough bring the same sense of stunning naturalism and unfussiness here. The problem is with the cheap digital camera Down to the Bone was shot on.

That’s not a slight against digital photography either, as the later film shot digitally. Allow me to get technical: Winter’s Bone was shot on the sophisticated Red One M camera (also a favorite of Steven Soderbergh’s). Down to the Bone, on the other hand, was shot on the Sony DSR-PD150, a camera also responsible for making David Lynch’s Inland Empire look like a blotchy vomit. Down to the Bone is an infinitely stronger film than Inland Empire, but it has the same hideous blotchiness, and that often works against Granik and McDonough’s clear talent.

But the film’s visual flaws aren’t enough to completely obscure the power of Granik’s direction and of her story. Down to the Bone’s depiction of addiction doesn’t go to many new places, but its even-handed, non-judgmental tone and often breathless tension shows seeds of the low-key brilliance of Granik’s upcoming masterpiece. Granik also shows the same deft hand at working with actors: the relatively unknown cast is all strong, particularly Dillon as another man struggling with past mistakes. But the highlight is the then-unknown Farmiga in a quietly intense, deeply vulnerable performance as a good woman struggling with demons that constantly threaten to overtake her. Farmiga was a surprise winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Between her borderline discovery of both Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence, it’s clear that Winter’s Bone is no fluke. Granik’s next film will no doubt be something special, whenever she does decide to return.

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