Hollywood tackles the American drug crisis in two star vehicles.
By Irena Bee
There’s a certain magical charisma that propels one actor ahead of their peers when confronted with a camera. It’s why Lady Gaga has become a cinema darling while Madonna is mocked. It’s one of those unknown unknowns that takes a beauty with a perfect smile or a cowboy with a sexy sneer and, when in front of a camera, turns them into a genuine star. That star quality makes us sit up like meerkats and pay attention.
This week two luminaries are shining their light on the catastrophic impact of drugs in white, middle-class American families. So don’t think of these works as films (or art), more like movie-length public service announcements (PSAs) against the illegal drug trade, our willful racial and age biases, the broken health system, dodgy pharma and our ineffectual legal frameworks that have allowed horrific crime and human suffering to flourish all over the developed world.
See these films for the powerful message that their stories tell, rather than the lack of power in their telling.
Firstly, Oscar-winning actor and director, Clint Eastwood, is making his last comeback as The Mule. It’s the story of real-life flower farmer, Earl Stone, who becomes the Midwest’s number one drug runner in his nineties. The film opens with a series of plodding scenes that consistently show Earl choosing his prized lilies, war veteran buddies and cross-country flower show exhibits over his daughter and wife. Decades later he turns up broke (damn you internet you flower farm killer!) and unwanted at his granddaughter’s engagement party with the sum total of his life’s belongings in an ancient Ford pick-up truck.
Coincidentally, his pride in his exemplary driving record gets him recruited as a long-haul drug courier. The story then becomes a series of vignettes showing Earl’s multiple drug runs across America. Fun times USA!
This is the most enjoyable and darkly comedic section of an otherwise cinematically boring and predictable film. Eastwood is unsurprisingly terrific as Earl, willfully oblivious to the pounds of cocaine in his boot, singing along to mid-century musical classics, helping out fellow travellers and generally relishing all the privilege of the open road for a ‘harmless’ old white man. This respect vanishes for the person of colour. The scene where an innocent driver has a panic attack and spouts survival data after being pulled over by the DEA cops is striking for its comic truth.
We then watch Earl spend his spoils to buy back his status – on a new truck, a gold bracelet, on his war vet buddies and even on his family. There’s an homage to the wonder of American roadhouse cuisine and the overt police racism of small town USA.
Unfortunately, The Mule shows none of the brilliance in either camera work or storytelling that earned Eastwood his Oscars and reputation as an actor and auteur of grim reality. This is not the grumpy truth-teller of Gran Torino, this is a MAGA hat-wearer made flesh.
The Mule’s natural end is a road scene of the bloody, beaten Earl, slumped and handcuffed in a police car, accepting his fate. But it doesn’t… This is Eastwood directing Eastwood one last time. Using the courtroom conceit, he forces a mea culpa and family reconciliation and finally Earl has peace with his flowers again. It’s like a cheap mash-up of Law and Order and On Golden Pond.
However it’s not the drugs or the violence that are the real crimes in this film. Neither is it the many proto-porn minutes spent on multiracial prostitute behinds, or the topless scenes of Eastwood with pairs of hookers (never just one).
Nor is the real crime the refuse made of the deep talent in the supporting cast – eager to work with a legend no doubt – but given nothing but shadows of characters and banal dialogue: Andy Garcia, the smiling cartel boss, Dianne Wiest, Earl’s Mamabear ex-wife, Laurence Fishburne as the bureau chief and even supernova, Bradley Cooper, as the smart but lonely special agent, can’t make the script or bland direction shine.
No. the real true crime is that The Mule never even attempts to deal with the consequences of what Earl has done to others. The regular lives lost, the loving families ruined.
The baton of seeing how drugs hollowed out America’s middle-class goes to the similarly straightforward, but far more dramatic, Ben is Back.
Oscar-winner Julia Roberts is Holly Burns, a proud American twice-married mum who left an abusive, white first husband with her two kids, and is now happily, and interracially, married to Neal (bringing the gravitas, Courtney B. Vance), with another two kids.
There’s a thing going on right now called the ten-year-challenge where stars, and the rest of us, post photos from a decade ago alongside current snaps on social media. Looking at a 10-foot close up of Roberts’ subtly ageing face and giant smile, I was struck by how maturely beautiful she was. This is exceptional casting. She acts every emotion in this film, often several simultaneously.
It’s Christmas Eve and this perfectly blended family is preparing for the Christmas pageant at church. The dappled light bathes the scene in warm, golden shades. While at their home, in stark, white and snowy contrast, sits Ben (rising star Lucas Hedges), vaping, jittery, ready to blow a hole through their Rockwell painting life.
Holly is overjoyed to see Ben, believing he’s been allowed to leave his drug recovery program for Christmas (but just in case she hides her meds and her jewelry). The rest of the family are skeptical at best, reminding Holly how Ben ruined several past Christmases with his lies, thieving and drug abuse. They make a deal – Ben is to stay clean, and stay with Holly for the 24 hours he’s been allowed home.
The family go to church where Ben is now also bathed in golden light. He ugly-weeps for the life he’s missed while Holly awkwardly reconnects with Beth (Rachel Bay Jones) who’s own daughter, Ben’s classmate, lost the addiction battle. Think of her as Chekhov’s mum. It’s all too perfect obviously; because we know from a million addiction movies that we’re looking at a lie.
Ben is back is a movie split in two: during the day we follow as Ben and Holly are confronted by past misdeeds that led them here. The scene where Holly meets their old doctor at the mall is particularly brutal in exposing the reason behind Ben’s addiction and the culpability of the medical system. Ben hides from old school friends and we learn that beneath his sweet and funny demeanor Ben feels worthless for surviving.
The tight, sometimes suffocating family drama is powerful because it is so benignly domestic and familiar. Roberts and Hedges are terrific in their dynamic. They have genuine chemistry. We marvel at her stoic optimism and unwavering support and we fear for him and his tenuous grip on sobriety.
The second half of the film takes place at night. It’is more thriller heist than family drama and so is less effective but no less brutal in revealing the reality of addiction.
Holly is forced to drive Ben around in search of their family dog that was stolen by a dealer while the family were at church. She refuses to let him out of her sight and as a result they roll through the quiet, tinsel-saturated neighborhood as Ben seeks Ponce in every dark corner and humiliation of his past. We discover that Ben was not an innocent victim and that the damage he caused haunts him. There’s plenty of realisation and silent self-blame all round. Roberts excels as each realisation of the horror show behind her son’s sweet facade hits her in the face.
Unfortunately what breaks the movie is the PSA element. Ben is Back would have been far more powerful if the raw story was left alone. However there are too many ‘educational’ breaks that explain the nature of addiction and justice in America. There’s Holly berating the chemist for the hypocrisy of not stocking Narcan, there’s Neil comparing black and white justice and Beth showing Holly how to use Narcan because the system won’t help.
Ben is Back is a microcosm of drug addiction hollowing out America’s white population. It’s the result of The Mule schlepping kilos of powder undetected across the country while police focus on the ‘optics’ of arrest numbers. These movies are about the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell society. That everything is okay, that we can handle it and that status and appearance is more valuable than community and honesty.
Ben is the realisation of a white, male future that Earl’s generation of men could never have imagined possible.
Irena Bee is a movie and TV critic whose day job is travelling Australia as a storytelling trainer and speaker for nonprofits and community groups. She runs 44 Playbook and in 2019 is a PhD Candidate. You can find her (rarely) on most social platforms as 44Playbook and mostly on Twitter as @PRproAus.