I have never done cocaine.
I have never cut up a line on the back of a CD case, a plate or a chopping board. I’ve never attempted to surreptitiously manoeuvre a key into a baggie in a dark corner of a club or dipped my finger into a wrap as I’ve waited in a line. I’ve never stood outside an Argos in weather-inappropriate shorts, slowly freezing to death as I wait for a dealer who is definitely, without a doubt, one hundred per cent just round the corner (he promises!).
To conclude, so there is no confusion, no doubt or questions hanging heavy on the matter – I have never, ever done cocaine. If I had, however, there is a chance that I may have perhaps seen more than a glimmer of myself reflected back at me recently. It happened as I dragged my sore head and overworked heart to the Universal screening rooms in central London on an obnoxiously bright morning last week.
There is a moment approximately halfway through Cocaine Bear where the eponymous Ursus americanus stares directly down the camera. The bear is, I think it would be fair to say, tanked. It’s buzzing. Actually, it’s flying, following the ingestion of a huge amount of coke that has been thrown out of a smuggler plane. In the particularly tense scene it emerges from the darkness, panting. I don’t think bears can physically sweat but spiritually, it was dripping.
As it moves forward from the shadows, there’s a familiar glint in its eye. One I would have seen in myself had I have ever indulged (which I haven’t!). One I’d have seen painted across the irises of people up and down the Kingsland Road or in the early morning sunshine of countless afters. The glint of the sesh gremlin. In that moment it was clear that the bear no longer had their plantigrade paws on the steering wheel in their mind – it had gone feral with desire.
Ostensibly Cocaine Bear tells the story of Andrew C. Thornton II, a drug runner who tossed huge quantities of the powdery nectar out of a plane as it flew above the mountains of Georgia in 1985. The true story goes that a bear found its way into a duffel bag full of cocaine bricks, got their snout in it and hoofed the lot, dying an agonising death minutes later from multiple organ failure. The bear, dubbed “Cocaine Bear”, is currently on display in Lexington, Kentucky at the Kentucky Fun Mall. Despite the name of its final resting place, most people would probably agree that the horrific death of an animal is not the traffic of a particularly uplifting or light comedic offering, so some creative licence has been taken.
“If I told the story of Andrew Carter Thornton, the drug run and his backstory, and ended with a bear doing cocaine and dying, I don't think that really warrants the title or the concept,” Cocaine Bear writer Jimmy Warden tells me on a video call shortly after I’d watched his film. “I thought, ‘OK… What if that is the beginning?’”
The thing is, Cocaine Bear is more than just The Revenant for wreckheads. It speaks to, and stay with me here, a much higher truth about society, about our political establishment, and about humanity itself. (This is going somewhere, I promise.)
In many ways Cocaine Bear features all the key tenets of a great night out. Without spoiling it there is maybe marginally more “mauling” and “death” in the film than your run-of-the-mill coked-up turn around Soho but this is Hollywood, baby! The film follows the bear on a mission to ride the white line highway. Its singular desire – cocaine, in case you missed it – lies in duffel bags strewn across the forest. We journey along with the bear on this misadventure, picking up drugs from the floor (do not do this), off strange men in sketchy corners (whomst amongst us) and gazebos (can’t do anything with this but needed a third to keep my rhythm).
As we move down the aforementioned highway we meet a series of increasingly histrionic and hysterical characters. In true great night out fashion, each quickly becomes a parody of themselves, pirouetting on the line between comedy and insanity as Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” blares in the background. (Because cocaine is very moreish – geddit?)
As with all great night outs, the more drugs are consumed, the deeper into the spiral our titular bear falls. Suddenly the only thing that matters is those lines. It gets to points where it would do anything for another hit. Just one more. To take the edge off. You can stop and sleep whenever you want but… why would you? There’s more coke in the forest!
It’s at this point of the night – and in the film – usually somewhere between 4 and 8AM, when shit starts to get real dark. Deals are made, bargains are struck, dignities relinquished for another shot at gakky heaven. In that darkness is where the true genius of Cocaine Bear lies. See, the film is more than just a thought experiment about what may have happened had Winnie the Pooh made different choices.
“I'm not sure I ever saw this movie as a warning against drugs, more a referendum on the war on drugs. You know, they're all victims in this, right?” Warden posits. “Like, you fed something to a bear and it went crazy. What do you expect? The war on drugs was definitely something that I wanted as a theme that percolated, and not rather than it just being straight-up ‘don't do drugs’.”
It is ironic, perhaps, that a cracked-out bear is the vehicle that injects humanity into the discourse around prohibition in the most convincing way for some time, but there we are. Truth is, decades of anti-drug propaganda have meant it’s often impossible to see those in the grip of the beast – cocaine, not the bear – as victims.
They are, much like the bear, not without agency. Choices are made, roads and forest paths walked down. It is only in the bear, perhaps, that the helplessness of addiction can be seen in its complexity. It is only in the litany of ludicrous characters the bear meets on the way that we begin to understand the ramifications of the war on drugs to the lives of all those involved, innocent or guilty as they may be.
Even those of us (not me!) who have perhaps not been at the sharpest edges of addiction but have spent countless hours, days and weeks chastising our inner sesh gremlins, can find some solace in the familiar misadventures of this coked-up bear. Its guiltlessness – by merit of it being a wild animal – somehow absolves us of some of the shame and sadness that grips you in the aftermath of a big night out.
In truth, there is a little bit of Cocaine Bear in all of us. For all its ridiculousness, sensationalism and stupidity there are lessons to be learned here, even if it’s just that giving a bear a meaty line is a really, really bad idea.