Apr 17, 2023
Ever wonder what happens when a bear does blow?
If you haven’t seen Cocaine Bear since its theatrical release in February, you’re in luck, because the drug-fueled horror flick inspired by a true story recently hit Video On Demand and, this past Friday, Peacock. If you've been wondering if it’s worth a watch, it 100% is. Here’s why.
The dark, R-rated horror-comedy is loosely based on the true story of a 175-pound three-or four-year-old male black bear living in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia in 1985, who stumbled across three duffel bags full of Colombian cocaine and dives right in, consuming almost 77 pounds of the drug, then died within 45 minutes from cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, and stroke, according to Bearwise. In the movie, the bear goes on a coke-fueled rampage and kills eight people. Like an addict in society, this addict in the wild will stop at nothing to get his next fix, regardless of what it entails.
In real life, it all started with drug smuggler (and former narcotics detective) Andrew Thornton II, played in the film by Matthew Rhys (The Americans). In the 80s, Thornton was part of a huge, illegal drug ring operating out of Lexington, Kentucky. On Sept. 9, 1985, Thornton and a bodyguard flew a Cessna plane into Colombia and picked up 400 kilograms (roughly 880 pounds) of cocaine to smuggle back into the U.S. They returned to the U.S. on Sept. 11 and all was going well, until they got spooked after hearing on the radio the FBI was following them. With haste, Thornton began dumping duffel bags of blow out of the plane as they neared the state line between Georgia and Tennessee, then he and his bodyguard prepared to parachute safely to the ground near Knoxville and get away.
The bodyguard landed safely and reportedly walked into a grocery store to call a cab so he could meet an accomplice nearby, then head north to Kentucky. Thornton did not. The movie shows us he was likely coked up on Colombian blow, put the plane on autopilot, strapped about 80 pounds of cocaine to his body, then prepared to jump … right to his death. Officials speculated the extra weight was too much for the parachute to deploy and carry the load safely to the ground. Thornton’s body was recovered in the driveway of a home in Knoxville, and the plane subsequently crashed in the mountains of North Carolina.
Directed by actress and filmmaker Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2, Zack and Miri Make a Porno), the film is very successful as an action-comedy with a perfect touch of horror. Banks makes some creative decisions in fleshing out the storyline and introducing subplots with characters each affected by the bear’s drug-induced rage.
Matching her Americans counterpart is Keri Russell, who plays a mother desperately searching for her kids in the Chattahoochee Forest after she learns they skipped school for the day to go hiking. She heads right to the ranger’s station and meets tough-as-nails park ranger Liz, played by the classically talented Margo Martindale (Justified), and her goofball trusty sidekick, wildlife protection representative Peter, played by the very funny Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family fame. Once they find her son terrified and up in a tree, they then come face to face with the drugged-up bear, who attacks Liz. Still alive, she is hell-bent on taking down the beast destroying her park. She and Peter's paired personalities intertwine organically to encompass the intelligent, devilishly sarcastic and humorous, I-don’t-give-a-shit energy that is Elizabeth Banks, and together they provide some much-needed levity at opportune moments racing with action, adrenaline, and fear.
Enhancing those moments are Banks’s smart selections of 80’s music that accompany different scenes, which remind us that while the situation at hand is gruesomely horrific and anxiety inducing, it’s also completely ridiculous and warrants laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Banks has a way of injecting her humorous style into the situation right from the film’s opening. We see the bear menacing and growling after having just mauled a hiker before being playfully distracted by a cute little butterfly. There are other moments as well, like when Matthew Rhys, who plays smuggler Andrew Thornton, goes to jump out of the plane but carelessly smacks his head on the lip of the door opening and knocks himself out cold, which prevents him from deploying his parachute in time, suggesting that his carelessness is what got him killed, not the extra 80 pounds of weight he was carrying. Consequently, he slams into the earth’s surface and kicks off a mystery that spread between Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. There’s even a great little moment where the bear sneaks up behind three guys also looking for the duffel bags. They freeze instantly and drop to the ground in stillness, then as the bear moves closer to them, he passes out right on top of one of them.
And I'm here to tell you that shit is funny. Thinking about it still makes me giggle. So, how is the bear revived? With cocaine, of course! As soon as a brick of coke falls from the back pocket of the guy in the white shirt and lands on the ground near the bear, powder disperses into the air and awakens the beast, who is quickly back on his thirsty mission to quite literally, well, feed the bear.
There’s even a fantastic action scene surrounding an attempted rescue at the park ranger’s station. While Liz escapes the first bear attack, she isn’t so lucky with the second, which happens at inside her station. When she walks in, she finds some local troublemakers, who are actually in there stealing from her, but she thinks they’re hiding from the bear. As she gets her gun, the bear shows up and attacks again, this time kicking off a wild shooting spree from Liz, who hits everything but the bear, including one of the troublemakers. It’s very reminiscent of a summer camp slasher scene with blood flying everywhere and splattering on the walls of the cabin and mauled bodies. Dead bodies. And here Banks makes creative use of the camera in how scenes are cut which also drives that campy feel. When the paramedics arrive for what they think is to help with a possible concussion, they’re met with a blood bath, remnants of human bodies, and a very wounded but barely alive Liz.
While one paramedic, Beth, gets Liz to the ambulance, the bear pins the other paramedic down under a door--its bloodied teeth and mouth dripping with saliva and guts as it growls in paramedic Tom’s face. Tom manages to smack the bear with his medical bag, which doesn’t phase the beast because, well, it’s a damn coked-out bear. BUT, the last time the bear was hit with a duffel bag, it was filled with blow, so the bear becomes distracted by the potential to find more cocaine and follows the bag, which gives Tom a chance to escape.
Outside, Beth has Liz strapped to a gurney, ambulance in idle, waiting for Tom. He comes running out, screaming for Beth to drive, and she does as he runs behind and jumps in at the last minute. But they’re still not safe. Coke Bear is right on their trail. Adding some levity, Depeche Mode’s hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” starts playing, and the chase is on. Beth franticly drives, Tom screams at her to go faster, and Liz screams at Tom to, “close the f**king door, you dumbass!"--a line Margo Martindale completely improvised, according to Decider. You just have to love Martindale in anything she does; she brings such force and attitude. Unfortunately, though, before Tom can close the doors, the bear takes a giant leap and lands in the back of the ambulance, destroying everyone inside. Ranger Liz—still strapped to a gurney—comes barreling out of the back, and the second the gurney hits the pavement, it flips over and Liz lands face down to experience the mother of all road rash scenarios. She does not survive.
In an interview with Vulture, Banks says she had a specific inspiration for Martindale’s on-screen death: “You know how when you’re seven years old on your bike and you scrape your knee on the pavement? Everybody can relate to that feeling. So, I [wanted] one of these kills to be relatably horrifying." And it is. It’ll make you squirm and squint and bare your teeth while sucking in all the air from whatever room you're in.
As for the bear, Banks knew it would only work if the audience believed the bear was real. She tells Variety, “It had to feel like a NatGeo documentary about a bear that did cocaine. It couldn’t be something silly. It couldn’t seem animated in any way.”
And she is right. There are moments where you actually think the bear is real. He is very well and successfully designed by Peter Jackson's Weta FX. Banks, without a doubt, successfully establishes her own filmmaking voice with Cocaine Bear and its healthy balance of horror, action, and comedy (with a touch of drama), and it boasts the perfect amount of gore without exploiting it in all the violence, severed body parts, blood, and internal organs.
Banks says she did some particularly graphic research of looking at actual animal attacks on humans. From Variety Magazine, “… it’s f**king gnarly as shit … I love gore. I grew up on ‘Evil Dead’. The gore is part of the fun of the ride. … I wanted to break down some of the mythology around what kinds of movies women are interested in making. For some bizarre reason, there are still executives in Hollywood who are like, ‘I don’t know if women can do technical stuff.’ There are literally people who are like, ‘Women don’t like math.’ It just persists.”
In case you're interested, you can see the actual cocaine bear up close and personal. Its carcass was taxidermied and spent time on display in Georgia before winding up in the hands of outlaw country music star Waylan Jennings then onto the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington.
My recommendation? For a bloody horrifically funny good time, watch this movie. It’s well worth your time, if you’ve got a sense of humor. Check out the trailer and see.
Keeley Brooks is a big ole movies, television, and streaming nerd with an uncontrollable urge to write about everything she watches. Even if it sucks. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.