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Addiction's unexpected face

November 25, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

As Debra Granik's unsparing yet beguiling "Down to the Bone" opens, Vera Farmiga's Irene, an upstate New York blue-collar mother, is helping her two small sons get into their Halloween costumes. Vera lives in a modest but inviting house in a semirural area with her husband, Steve (Clint Jordan), and their kids and works as a supermarket cashier. She is a slim, striking woman but seems unaware of her distinctive beauty, marked by intense pale eyes and dramatic cheekbones, and quietly carries out her tasks as a mother and homemaker capably and devotedly.

Yet before she sets out to escort her sons in their trick-or-treating, Irene darts into her bathroom for a quick line of coke. Irene and her environment seem so stable and normal her drug taking comes as a shock.

In truth, Irene, who looks to be in her mid-20s, is a longtime cocaine addict, having started in high school. How she has managed to hold her life together for so long seems nothing short of miraculous, but now she's finding it hard to afford her habit. However, instead of going off the deep end, she enters a rehabilitation center where she receives much encouragement from its chief counselor, Bob (Hugh Dillon), a former heroin addict now clean for five years.

Bob has a beatific smile and is so concerned that Steve will pressure Irene into checking out of the clinic too soon that he successfully persuades her to join a 12-step group upon her departure.

With characteristic stoicism, Irene has submitted to the rigorous rehabilitation program with determination and with little complaint.

But she has not reckoned with the growing mutual attraction between her and Bob, coupled with the thickheadedness of Steve, whose laid-back sweetness belies a dangerous, hypocritical selfishness. Irene's survival instincts will be put to the test.

Along with its deftly illuminated characterizations of Irene; Bob; Steve; and Lucy (Caridad de la Luz), a strong-willed, clear-eyed young woman Irene befriends at the rehabilitation center, "Down to the Bone" in its low-key way suggests that recreational drugs, despite their potential for devastation, can work their way into everyday life. Indeed, key to Irene's predicament is that Steve apparently can be a casual user and sees coke as a way to jump-start his and Irene's waning sex life.

In a confident and inspired feature debut, Granik, inspired by real-life events, is not depicting anything an intelligent person is not already aware of. Yet her film has the effect of revelation because her approach is resolutely understated. "Down to the Bone" emerges with an aura of authenticity so strong as to be mesmerizing, thanks to a superior script brought to life with infallibly natural performances, especially that of Farmiga, soon to be seen in the crime thriller "Running Scared" and currently filming Martin Scorsese's police drama "The Departed" opposite Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. No matter how successfully Farmiga scales the heights in film, her Irene, in which resilience and vulnerability run neck and neck, will always remain a milestone in her career.


`Down to the Bone'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Considerable drug use, some sensuality, strongly adult themes

A Laemmle/Zeller Films release of a Down to the Bone/Susie Q Productions presentation. Director Debra Granik. Producers Susan Leber, Anne Rosellini. Screenplay by Granik and Richard Lieske. Cinematographer Michael McDonough. Editor Malcolm Jamieson. Music supervisor Joe Klotz. Costumes Nancy Brous. Production designer Mark White. Set decorator Lisa Scoppa. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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