From movies, you’d never guess the degree to which drug addiction is a small-town pastime. Vera Farmiga, the star of Down to the Bone, has the face of the world’s saddest Madonna, and she’s flat-out remarkable as Irene, a financially strapped mother of two who works as a cashier at a megamart-style superstore and snorts cocaine to get through the day. Irene’s long straight hair has begun to turn stringy, and she rarely wears makeup, but beneath her sallow skin and dead eyes, you can glimpse the carefree, pretty, slightly hip party girl she once must have been. Shooting in the wintry desolation of upstate New York, the director, Debra Granik, has an eye for what addiction really looks like in America — the gray-hippie dealer with the flag for a curtain — and she records Irene’s habit as a series of devastating daily details: the insidious yet weary small lies, the attempt to pay her dealer with her son’s birthday check from Grandma.
Hitting bottom, Irene goes in for rehab, and the drama of temptation and will begins. I can’t think of a film that has captured how a recovering addict must face down the world ”one day at a time” with the bleak intimacy of Down to the Bone. Farmiga, eyes shining with fear, shows Irene meeting her new existence one minute at a time. We can see why she’s drawn to Bob (Hugh Dillon), a rehab nurse and former junkie with a gently sexy manner, but as the two try to save each other, the film shocks us with the power drugs still hold over them. Down to the Bone achieves what only the best independent films have: making life, at its most unvarnished, a journey.