The Ugly Truth
|Starring:||Vera Farmigia, Hugh Dillon, Clint Jordan, Caridad de la Luz|
Debra Granik’s “Down to the Bone” has made a sufficient amount of noise in the indie film world since it screened at Sundance 2004, and is now receiving a theatrical release. Even by indie standards, the film is a tough sell. About a working class wife and mother struggling with drug addiction, this story is told in a quiet, documentary style (not surprising given the director’s background in the form), which dismisses the usual narrative conventions associated with this type of material. The vast peaks and valleys that traditionally pave the way toward ultimate redemption for the protagonist aren’t readily available here.
In upstate New York, Irene (Vera Farmiga) works as a supermarket cashier, raising two young sons with her non descript husband, Steve (Clint Jordan). Unbeknownst to all around her, the woman fights a cocaine addiction, and after one drastic incident too many, finally seeks help. Irene checks herself into a rehab where she meets recovering addict, Bob (Hugh Dillon). A romantic bond grows between the two, eventually ending Irene’s marriage, and leads to more complications when the demons from Bob’s past continually rear their ugly heads.
There’s an evenness to the drama, which lends the movie authenticity, but at the expense of accessibility. Granik is unwilling to compromise realism by offering easy opportunities for the audience to support Irene. Her life’s pitfalls are treated as part of a daily routine, and no showy scenes are allotted for the protagonist to curry sympathy. Similarly, the director is careful not to exploit her character’s affliction, and these choices, to a large degree, eliminate audience identification.
“Down to the Bone” confronts the same problem many films of this ilk face–how does one tackle this material in an honest manner without dismissing simple entertainment value? From the perspective of humanitarian and social observer, Granik’s work is basically beyond reproach, but the director’s rigid aesthetic can invite viewer complacency. Granik walks this tightrope with a few of the same uneven results of her predecessors, but I admire the unwillingness to deviate from her singular vision. I greatly respect this film, despite the fact I have little desire to see it again.
Vera Farmiga has been widely praised for this performance and, despite the distance Granik enforces, the intensity is tangible. On the other hand, this distance is also the primary reason Farmiga is so believable. The hitting rock bottom/breakdown scene we’ve come to expect with this type of character never materializes, nor does the film need it. Irene’s pain is clearly depicted, without calling attention to itself, via her incremental downward spiral.
Beyond the subject matter, “Down to the Bone” is too formally strict to appeal to a wide audience, but Granik’s treatment of this material feels refreshingly uncluttered by outside involvement. It makes for difficult viewing from time to time, but “Down to the Bone” is nothing if not a pure and sincere expression, which is always easy to appreciate and, unfortunately, something of a rarity in contemporary cinema.