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Just. Watched. The. Most. Depressing. Movie. EVER.

Down to the Bone, which is the first feature film by Debra Granik, who went on to make Winter’s Bone, and is in the process of developing a treatment for the Russell Banks novel Rule of the Bone.

(No. Really. She is. Do we sense a naming convention?)

The film is ostensibly about junkies and coke addicts in Ulster County, right across the river from me.

But really, the film’s about poor people who live in Ulster County, right across the river from me. Many of whom use drugs because their only other option would be to blow their brains out. Especially in the wintertime.

The film’s protagonist is Irene. She’s a checkout clerk in a small, low-rent supermarket.

Most films, of course, ignore their characters’ economic lives, which I’ve always thought was bizarre given the fact that the job, getting ready to go to the job, transporting oneself to the job etc easily takes up 50 to 60 percent of most people’s lives. Even the most earnest, true-to-life movies that ignore this important aspect of its characters’ lives must perforce be classified as an escapist fantasy. Television actually does a much better job than movies in this important regard.

“Do you have an Advantage card?” we hear Irene asking over and over. Her eyes are vacant.

Often her customers pull out huge wads of coupons and she’s forced to go through them.

Once a manager reprimands her: “Irene, you used the code for yams when the item was a sweet potato –“

Her coke habit is actually the thing that allows her to maintain at her job, but she checks herself into rehab anyway after she tries to barter the birthday check her in-laws send her eldest son for an eight-ball.

After she kicks her habit, she’s no longer very good at her job. Her productivity slows. She’s rude to customers.

One day a young mother is in her line, who says, “Can you tell me the total as you ring it up? I’m not sure I have enough money to cover all this –“

“You know what? That’s fine,” Irene says. “Just take it.”

Instantly we here Irene being paged over the store’s loudspeaker: Please report to the manager’s office.

Aha, she’s gonna be fired for giving away groceries, the audience thinks. (The audience is relieved because we’re back in familiar territory here: Irene! The cokehead with the heart of gold.)

But, in fact, just coincidently, it’s time for a performance review. The managers have noticed how slow she’s become at the register and ask her if there are any circumstances in her life that might permit them to make allowances for her –

“All right,” says Irene. “You really wanna know what’s happening? I used to be high all the time, and that made me really fast. But now I’m clean and I’m slow.”

“Irene, you know our policy here about drug use,” the manager says. And he fires her.

After that she starts cleaning houses. It's a better job, actually, though I think we're supposed to believe that she's come down in the world.

A lot of other stuff happens too. Irene falls in love with a smack chippy and keeps on falling. She falls and falls and falls. She’s still falling at the end of the movie; we’re really not sure whether she’s hit bottom.
But the job stuff is what spoke to me.

The job stuff and the scenes of the brutal rural New York winter. Those incidental flash-by shots of snow mounds crusted with black, littered with broken plastic Santa Clauses and faded American flags. Snow mounds in the parking lots of churches and community buildings where the film’s various characters struggle through 12 step meetings.

Winter’s Bone covered some of the same territory but at a safer remove: I mean, people are supposed to be poor in the Ozarks, right? It’s part of the fairy tale. Winter’s Bone also had that great mythical quest structure and a happy ending – Jennifer Lawrence saves the homestead!

I don’t know what the takeaway is supposed to be from a movie like this. That drugs are bad? I suspect the reason it'shard to find the takeaway is because Granik actually thinks drugs are value-neutral. It’s what you have to do to get those drugs that's bad. A saner world would understand that heroin is just another brand of Prozac. A saner world might even try to find meaningful employments for its residents.

Sadly, there's nothing you can do about New York winters.


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Every Day Above Ground

September 2017

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