Down to the Bone

A film like “Down to the Bone,” about the stark reality of drug addiction, couldn’t be set in spring or summer. To get the full impact, you need the desolation of winter: the barren trees, the bleak skies, the grayish slush on the sidewalks.

I feel chilly after watching the film, and not (just) because the heat in my apartment is erratic. It’s set in the dark winter months in New York state, a time when even an optimist might find himself feeling a little hopeless. Directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Richard Lieske, the movie boasts a fantastic performance by Vera Farmiga and an exceedingly unhappy storyline. It’s a movie you “appreciate” more than you “enjoy.”

Farmiga plays Irene, a drab housewife and grocery store clerk who, when the film begins, is already deep in the throes of a cocaine addiction. Her husband, Steve (Clint Jordan), enables her and parties with her sometimes, though his addiction doesn’t seem as powerful as hers. Their two little boys are either unaware of Mom’s illness or consider it normal.

Less than 20 minutes into the film, Irene enters rehab. She befriends a male nurse there, Bob (Hugh Dillon), who’s a recovering addict himself. After she gets cleaned up, they attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings together. They have more in common than Irene and her husband do, if only because Irene’s husband isn’t trying to go straight.

Though I can’t directly empathize, I suspect the film gets the details of addiction and post-addiction recovery just about right. The way junkies lie to each other and themselves, the way simple things like the smell of Windex can ignite old cravings, the way addicts will get off dope and become hooked on cigarettes or sex instead, just trading one addiction for another, it’s all here in the film, shot in the verite shaky-camera style that is typical of this genre.

It’s ultimately not a new or different film. It follows the general pattern of most addiction dramas, including the backslide that occurs at the 60-minute mark. What makes it work is Farmiga’s realistic performance. Without grandstanding or overacting, she conveys Irene’s addiction believably while keeping all the conflicting emotions — love for her children, physical cravings for the drug — in check. A lesser actress would have made the thing maudlin or (considering its slow-moving plot) boring. It’s worth watching if only just for her.

B (1 hr., 41 min.; R, scattered harsh profanity, brief strong sexuality and some nudity, lots of drug use.)