By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com
New DVD: Down to the Bone (2004, ***)
ONE OF THE REGRETTABLE THINGS about not having the luxury to write only about one film or two films a week is the lack of time to consider what truly constitutes “acting” in movies.
It’s one of the most mysterious components of the alchemy of filmmaking. Pauline Kael, for one example, was terrific at finding zingy one-liners to describe the physicality of a performer. “There are things you just can’t write, like the way an actor will look at another actor,” Oliver Stone once told an interviewer. “And these little things are everything in a movie. So I think that as filmmakers, we don’t truly have control over everything.”
Made on the most modest of budgets on digital video, Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, (Hart Sharp, $20) which won two prizes at Sundance 2004, including for actress Vera Farmiga’s “outstanding performance” is a powerful mix of control and fearlessness, of observation and contemplation.
Set in the drearier reaches of economically failing upstate New York, Bone is the story of Irene (Farmiga), a young mother with a child to raise and a cocaine addiction as well. Working in a dead-end job as a grocery cashier, Irene’s life is one urge at a time more than one day at a time.
Granik’s work as a writer and director, drawn from research for a documentary she did not make, has the felicity of nonfiction filmmaking, but the grace of Farmiga’s fearlessness. Even if you choose just to stare into the center of the screen at this marvel of an actress, you cannot help but admire the authenticity of each moment as it plays out. Irene is wearied from drugs but also from work: it’s a double-edged situation, with the lower-working-class milieu as inescapable as a bad habit yet likely more permanent.
“Do you have an advantage card?… I don’t either,” is Irene’s potentially condescending opening line to a customer at the grocery, yet in Farmiga’s delivery, wry grin and body language, the movie opens out like an vulnerable smile. Irene isn’t a histrionic audition piece for a Steppenwolf try-out: much of the pain stays simmering within. There’s casual authenticity in verbal and gestural exchanges, which could be summed up by a post-rehab pal of Irene’s offering the shrug of “I just feel more comfortable high.”
Down to the Bone failed to get a distributor after its Sundance awards, and after being picked up by a small start-up, opened in Los Angeles in late 2005, to almost no response, except critical raves and a Los Angeles Film Critics’ award for best actress. The subject matter may be off-putting in outline—woman-kids-junk-uplift-downfall like too many recent Sundance dramatic entries—but to deny oneself the chance to see Farmiga’s performance is a more painful prospect. (The promise of a non-romanticized working class milieu may also be alienating to audiences, from those who don’t want to see such things because it doesn’t speak to them to those who don’t want to see such things because they’ve escaped (or hope to escape) it themselves.
The only movies that are “downers” for me are ones that are badly mad or poorly observed, and while dealing with hopelessness and haplessness, Down to the Bone is uplifting for its minor-key yet majestic feats of empathy. (And Michael McDonough’s digital cinematography is lyrical without straining.) Granik’s movie is a feat of listening, and a feat of watching as well.
There are theories to hatch and cases to be made about what constitutes the best of screen acting, but as in Down With the Bone, start with the human face. And in Farmiga’s face, you will see one of the most powerful performances of recent years.