Several years ago I watched Winter’s Bone (2010) and thought it was quite good, opening my eyes to rural devastation in America. I read a bit about it and found out that the director, Debra Granik, had directed a film in 2004 called Down to the Bone. It aired in July on Film4 and I just got round to watching it. It shares with Winter’s Bone themes of poverty, drug abuse, and desperation, but it finds its desolation in the life of a coke-addicted mother in upstate New York, rather than in the grim family ties of the meth-addicted Ozarks.
Down to the Bone, made on half a million dollars, is extremely stripped down, often feeling a bit like a ’90s home video. On the one hand, the location shooting, the minimal score, and the apparently non-professional acting can be distracting and results in some poor moments. On the other, these features tend to ground the film in a sort of ruthless realism. The off-kilter pacing, often breaking continuity expectations, can also be an asset, reminding me of the superb but also challengingly awkward Funny Ha Ha (2002) from a few years before. The composition, with shots riven by doorways or windows, may have been an inevitability of location shooting, but it also provides a sense of intimacy and a vague voyeuristic quality, just as similar techniques did (with greater deliberateness) in Carol this year.
Despite (or because of) its strengths, it is not an easy film to watch. The score and pacing intensify the unpleasantness of its topics, with long takes of difficult conversations and dismal situations. The drug use is brutal and unglamourized, in stark contrast to mainstream Hollywood films—even those about addiction. Vera Farmiga, as Irene, mitigates this through her singularly expressive face, which paradoxically manages to convey desperation, incomprehension, disbelief, and anger, all whilst remaining sedated, and virtually impassive. Animals figure inexplicably frequently in the film, with a cat, a snake, the killing of a turkey, and the mounting of a deer head. As in A Touch of Sin (2013), it’s not clear whether these animals are meant to express specific associations, or whether their unconsciousness and the meaninglessness of being caged or slaughtered is meant to be a parallel to the characters’ own powerlessness. The lack of resolution in the film’s ending serves to emphasize the fact that the characters will continue to break resolutions with ever-worsening consequences.
Ultimately, it’s a decent independent film about the tribulations faced by the weakening working class in America. See it if you have a stomach for the bleak and an interest in social welfare. ★★★☆☆