Addiction has become an American obsession. This nation was founded striving for more, and we have evolved to a state of all titillation all the time. Given the shared interests of addicts and filmmakers (control, euphoria, a constant search for new action), it is not surprising that the topic has inspired its own cinematic canon. The latest entry is Cocaine Angel, an odyssey through North Florida’s underworld of pill poppers, coke shooters, whores and delinquents from director Michael Tully and writer Damian Lahey, who also stars as flawed anti-hero Scott.
These are not the cuddly panhandle criminals of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. Cocaine Angel is firmly rooted in characters who have fallen so far between the cracks that their modest goals of human interaction and a brief moment of happiness are grotesquely out of reach. This relentless portrait of five days in the life of a drug addict played at the Rotterdam and South by Southwest Film Festivals. It is beginning its theatrical release at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater.
Mr. Lahey gives a performance that is pitiless and off key. His Scott is a torrent of ticks and jitters, constantly sputtering a stream of consciousness pep talk that fails to inspire anyone, let alone himself. He is painfully aware that the harder he chases his dreams the farther away they slip. Unfortunately as his love interest, Kelly Forester’s Mary cannot find the same bitter humor or verve to shock her character out of nihilistic self-absorption.
The film was made on the thinnest of shoestring budgets. The use of non-actors and locations brings an authenticity to this derelict daydream. It owes equal stylistic debts to Alan Clarke’s social decay films and HBO’s “America Undercover” documentaries. Like these cinematic forbearers, Tully’s camera is both clinical and voyeuristic. It alternatingly pulls you into this underworld and keeps you at an arm’s length that forces you to come to terms with it. He manages a delicate balance that neither passes judgment nor lets the characters off the hook.
At points the unbridled realism that drives the film also threatens to derail the story. The middle section of the ramble is uneven with some characters (like Hurricane Mike) coming across more like types than people. But in the tradition of the finest do-it-yourself filmmakers, Tully uses his limitations to his advantage. He lets the tripped out action become self-indulgent and grating because those are the characteristics that define this world.
The filmmaker’s larger ambition comes into focus in a final sequence that is understated and emotionally direct. As Max Richter’s score evokes the escalation (and desperation) of Scott’s frantic quest, he finally pulls back the layers to reveal what he’s running from and, more importantly, what he’s after. A beautifully simple mixed media montage contrasts Scott’s primal desire and present state in a way that transcends the limitations of the simple druggie tale.