What is it about Xander Berkeley? It may be an easy question, but he’s got charisma and he’s a very fine actor. He’s done good work in some very well-chosen projects, playing a lot of different roles… When I was a kid, I used to pick movies by their actors. But that was ages ago and it was odd, when I got my choice of assignments, that I went with Cook County just because I knew Mr. Berkeley was in it. My instincts were right…
The movie begins with shots of an East Texas house, then of Bump, who tells a little girl to leave the room where he’s preaching from the mount – to an addict. This half-clothed man makes you think of Tyler Durden from Fight Club with Mathew McConaughey’s accent. He extolls the virtue of his trade, how “doing a bump every 2 hours” gets you through the day, and how he brings truth to the people. It’s hypnotic, especially when you realize that this sales pitch is happening while his meth lab is going up in flames.
The basic storyline here: three people live in a simple, dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. Abe, the teenage nephew, slums it for his uncle, Bump, a skittish meth producer. Deandra is Bump’s 6 year-old daughter. They have no lack of “friends,” but they’re all a collection of junkies and flunkies who either buy meth or scandalous amounts of drain cleaner and cough medicine at the local convenience store; the store owner is oblivious.
Abe is a real survivor. Sure, he does business for his uncle – and may have just kicked the habit – but he’s freaked out by the insanity around him. Abe doesn’t join the parties that go on at home; instead, he sits with his little cousin – and you get the feeling he’s protecting her from both the drugs as well the strung-out guests. Bump doesn’t treat either of them very well. Actually, “daddy” is starting to get his pre-pubescent daughter involved in the business, and he’s rough with his nephew.
Life is, basically, a $#%@-storm, and the whole turbulent mess will get more volatile. Why? Because Sonny, older brother to Bump and father of Abe, is about to come home – I dare claim, with a vengeance. Our intro to Sonny is him getting dropped off in a parking lot, and a quick-but-focused conversation with the car’s driver. Clearly, something’s up, yet we’re not really sure what’s going on, like an early episode of 24.
Sonny and Bump have a solid relationship. Appropriately enough, big bro can really calm his sibling’s drug-induced freakouts. Sonny is the only one both mentally tough and physical enough to bring Bump to some kind of sense. While Bump’s disappointed that his older brother quit using, he barely questions why Sonny was gone for 2 & 1/2 years.
So things at the little house-from-hell are tumultuous and unpredictable. While Sonny does add a stable presence, Abe is pissed at his dad for abandoning him and Deandra. And, though Sonny doesn’t get high anymore, the eldest goes back to the family business right away.
If this film had a subtitle, it would be - Cook County: Darkness Before the Dawn. The pic surprises you with a tone that jumps from normal (or semi-normal) to a slow, back-woods version of The Shining. CC can do so in a second. A constant sense of dread washes over everything, to the story’s benefit.
Moreover, this is not a film that leads you by the hand in explaining everything. The resolution of some scenes and lines is simply strongly implied. If you’re actually watching and paying attention, though, you can see both why and how every moment plays out.
I feel very annoyed that this came out in 2009 – around the time I noticed that my local CVS was making people sign out for cough medication. In the three years since, America has realized how wide and bad the meth problem has become. This picture adds something to the conversation about that issue, and it should not have taken til December ’11 for major publications to pick up on this.
The characters are magnetic and impressive, excellently portrayed. The dialogue and events are creepy, surprising, sad, and intriguing. You will be on the edge of your seat for most of Cook County – so much so, that this picture practically qualifies as a thriller.
CC is beautifully-shot. Name any cinematographer, and I can’t say that anyone would’ve done a better job in shooting the scenes or in designing the look for this picture. In several moments, there is a contrast between two people, two locations – and it works to perfection. Every moment of this movie looks beautiful, even when the onscreen events are ugly or pathetic.
This is a character drama. You follow the narrative between some complex roles and the situations that they face. Cook County makes them all feel real. In many ways, this is like a more focused take on Traffic‘s themes, but with central pro- and antagonists who are very strong.
There is, really, no weakness here. It tells what it tells, and it does that just fine. Every element is done well – pace, direction, acting, dialogue, story. I wasn’t thrilled about a movie where a family’s torn apart by hardcore drugs, but I wound up feeling grateful that I chose to see it.
Ride this out, and I promise you’ll be impressed.
The pro reviews, however, confuse me – Metacritic lists this pic as a 44/100; it’s based on 9 reviews, so have some faith. And the Rotten Tomatoes reviewers must be the ones doing meth – I cannot see this movie having a mere 38% fresh rating, even based on 13 critical reviews. AV Club gave it a C+.
Sure, some critics might take the child endangerment angle as being too manipulative. However, CC never feels like it uses that as a real crutch. See, drugs make up all of these peoples’ lives, so if she’s in danger, it’s because she’s always around her family, and they’re a ticking time bomb.
The audience reaction on RT makes more sense, tho: 77% fresh on 358 ratings. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety were impressed. Yet IMDb’s 6.0 (from 168 users) seems a bit low. Watch the picture, and feel free to chime in here and on those sites as well; this work deserves recognition.
Makenna Fitzsimmons, the child who plays Deandra, is excellent. The role is compelling and charming, and the actress herself is touching and adorable; her joy at getting a present is pathetically-accurate. Polly Cole is fantastic as Lucy, the addict/groupie who latches onto Bump – you want to both hug and strangle her. Amazingly, there is no major or minor role here that is played poorly; every actor is firing on all cylinders. I wish I could say the same for most big-budget, big-cast productions.
Anson Mount is both repellent and mesmerizing. He’s Jim Jones on a massive high, laying out “the truth” to the people around him, forcing the world to do what he wants by grabbing it and screaming in its face. And yet Bump still comes across as a real person – someone with flashes of wit and grace and even love. He’s so wrecked that he can’t pull himself out of himself, and his self-destructive nature combines with a massive ego. Every breath he takes is a pre-tragedy. It’s award-worthy.
Xander, however, serves as the glue here. Sonny only pops up on occasion, so the picture doesn’t exactly feel like it’s about him – but this eldest brother set all these dominoes up, and now we watch him as he watches how they fall. Xander carries and sells all of it, providing superb support to a very solid film.