Banks: Cocaine Bear (2023)
From the cheesy opening intertitles, which present a series of facts about black bears, and then attribute them to Wikipedia, Cocaine Bear is a throwback to the instant cult classics of the 80s, and made for midnight screenings. Appropriately, it’s a very loose “adaptation” of an event that took place in the mid-80s – Cokey the Bear, a 175-pound black bear who overdosed on cocaine dropped by drug smugglers in the woods of Tennessee. Whereas Cokey died immediately, he goes on a rampage in Cocaine Bear, brutally disposing of anyone in his path as a series of characters make their way across the woods unaware of the danger looming in their path. Like many 80s B-pictures, the connective tissue here is pretty bare bones, and serves mainly as padding for a series of terrific set pieces and vignettes, all of which involve an encounter with the bear, or the traces of the bear, or the residue of the cocaine drug drop.
Above all, Cocaine Bear is driven by nostalgia for the new inflection that the woods, that quintessentially American space, started to accrue in the 1980s. Director Elizabeth Banks revels in establishing-shots, and in carving out discrete microcosms within the woods, along with a peripatetic momentum that also feels distinctively 80s: different groups of characters, all wandering through a single space, and intersecting in unexpected and surprising ways. There’s a sense here that the woods stand in for endless genre or franchise expansion, infinite and indefinite possibilities for narrative play, which is perhaps why Cocaine Bear reminded me of the middle films in the original Friday the 13th series – after Camp Crystal Lake had lost its strangeness, but before the franchise started to opt for more extravagant shifts in location. During these middle films (which, like Cocaine Bear, opted for sets and location shooting over computer generated effects), directors primarily differentiated their instalments through the particular rhythms, the convergences and divergences, that they grafted onto the woods, creating distinct patterns of wandering, metonymic signatures that Banks also draws on here.
At the same time, the woods of the 80s reflected a distinct movement away from the pastoral naturalism of New Hollywood cinema. In the wake of Spielberg, and the rise of the blockbuster, even (or especially) the most naturalistic of cinematic spaces started to brim with a plasticity, an artificiality, and a hyperreality that is periodised beautifully in Cocaine Bear. The first character we see in the film is a drug dealer played by Matthew Rhys, and the main character is a mother played by Keri Russell, a sly nod to The Americans, a series that focused on a pair of Soviet spies who had to pose as Americans in the 80s – that is, a series that presented the 80s as an artificial construction from the very outset. At moments, Cocaine Bear feels like an eccentric side narrative in The Americans, or in any number of 80s franchises, as Banks acknowledges by setting the opening scene against the backdrop of a lavish movie theatre. The more naturalistic the woods become here, the more artificial they seem, and the closer to a fairground ride, with destinations like Blood Mountain and Secret Falls, and a propulsive synth score that peaks whenever we’re immersed in “nature.” Sari, Russell’s character, tracks her missing daughter by following bright splotches of paint – turquoise, crimson, pink – that makes the entire set feel like it’s been painted on, just as she and her daughter planned to head into the woods in the first place to paint a local waterfall.
This collapse of natural and unnatural landscapes forms part of a larger parody of the 80s War on Drugs. Cocaine, the scourge of urban life and the harbinger of “unnatural” pleasures is here nestled in the midst of the woods, at the centrepiece of an airbrushed American pastoral, much as a disaffected park ranger played by Margo Martindale (in another echo of The Americans) has come to see the woods primarily as a meeting point for corruptible suburban kids, rather than as a repository of natural wonders. One of the comic set pieces of the film sees a group of characters talking at cross-purposes about an attack that has taken place in the local ranger’s station. Some of them attribute it to the bear and some of them attribute it to a local gang of kids, while others attribute it to the Bluegrass Conspiracy of drug dealers, fusing all the spaces that are putatively inside or outside the American drug epidemic until the rise of cocaine is subsumed into the wider hysteria, hyperbole and moral panic of the 80s.
In that sense, cocaine here is like an otherworldly high, a burst of hyperreality, that percolates through the heart of everything deemed “naturally” American in the mid-80s. The peaking synth pulses capture this convergence of cocaine and American family values, culminating with an inanely brilliant scene in which the bear chases an ambulance round and round the ranger’s carpark while Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” plays over the soundtrack. It’s the same jouissance, the same hedonic addiction to cinematic pleasure, that you see in the great 80s slasher films, and in many ways the bear is truer to the spirit of classic slashers than many contemporary reboots. Like a slasher, the bear is invulnerable and insatiable, fusing the object and subject of moral panic in the same way that Jason, Freddy, and Michael all represented both the monsters that emerge when paternal authority is absent, and the monstrosity of paternal authority itself. The same logic applies in Cocaine Bear, where the situation of cocaine within a “natural” landscape also works backwards, suggesting that right-wing appeals to a “natural” American way of life, and right-wing moral panics, were driven by an even more insanely addictive jouissance than cocaine itself. The bear thus obeys a slasher logic in both representing the fear of drugs percolating through an unregulated “natural” landscape, but also the fear of the addictive discourse that claims to define what is “natural” in the first place. These two drives crystallise around the most suspenseful scene in the film, in which the bear is reabsorbed into domestic space, and produces a slasher prescience, as a medic senses it behind a door, which the camera mirrors with the longest shot of the film too.
Cocaine Bear thus periodises the Reaganesque war on drugs as parody, suggesting that the right wing’s fixation on American values needed the cocaine epidemic to fuel its own insane addictions to power. By the end, the cocaine bear itself has become a symbol of family values, since it turns out that all its violence has been a way of protecting its cubs, just like Sari, the main character. The perverse high of cocaine converges with the moral oppobria of the Reagan era as Sari and the bear find a common ground, mother alongside mother, outside the bear’s nest, which is perched on the edge of a precipitous waterfall, a space that itself confounds the distinctions between inside and outside so precious to Reagan-era homeland.
Admittedly, this finale is a little anticlimactic stylistically, since the waterfall is almost entirely CGI, clad in a more contemporary dimness that cuts against the exquisite hyperreality of the woods. Still, this is offset by two other touchstones in the closing moments – first, a terrific standoff around a gazebo, which becomes an island for the woods to lap up against; second, the very last scene, in which the survivors part ways in the rangers’ carpark with a tremulous sense of the present moment that’s redolent of The Breakfast Club. All the interweaving, wandering, criss-crossing trajectories of Cocaine Bear crystallise here into a tribute to the 80s troupe, and its amenability to being replicated, divided and intensified by montage – an inane-sublime testimony to mediation that makes it feel like this must be the first step in an ongoing franchise, a Cocaine Cinematic Universe that taps into the insane highs of past moral panics.
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