LITTLE ROCK There's a certain kind of regional independent movie I really love, the sort that are usually described as "gritty." They show us credible pictures of people like ourselves or people we know in circumstances that we can imagine. These movies treat their prospective audiences as adults, and seem to be more about telling stories grounded in the verities of human existence than exploiting collective wishfulness or selling us hunks of plastic (like toy robots, martial dolls, Ray-Ban sunglasses or Shia LaBeouf).
The methamphetamine gothic horror Cook County is another of those movies. It shares with films like Scott Teems' That Evening Sun (which opened this year's Little Rock Film Festival), Vince Insalaco's War Eagle, Arkansas, Ray McKinnon's Chrystal and a handful of other "small" movies I could name an authentic sense of place and a specificity of character that we encounter more often in novels than in screenplays.
While the plot might be easily transposed to another part of the country or world, it feels organically rooted in the (fictional) Texas county of the title.
For the record, there is a Cooke County, Texas, but it's in the northeast, on the Oklahoma line, not in the piney woods north of Houston where the film is primarily set. It seems important to point that out, to emphasize that it is indeed a made-up story, because it seems drawn directly from life, seeded with details that are heartbreaking and precise. (Writer-director David Pomes insists his knowledge of junkiedom is entirely academic. He made up his story after reading a magazine article about the crystal meth epidemic.)
But Cook County is not just another drug film loaded with depressing tropes who cannot and will not rise above their addictions; it is a story of plausible redemption, a kind of sorrow-logged family movie (although you probably shouldn't bring the kids).
The movie essentially belongs to Anson Mount (an actor I'd never really given much thought to as he filled various boyfriend and best friend roles), who delivers a ferocious, lacerating and - in a better world - perhaps career-making performance as the wild and scary, but weirdly empathetic Bump, a would be meth kingpin undone by too frequent sampling of his own product.
Bump lives in a woods with his 6-year-old daughter Deandra (Makenna Fitzsimmons) and his teenage nephew Abe (Ryan Donowho), who provides a fraying layer of insulation between the increasingly paranoid meth dealer and innocent child.
Some relief seems to appear when Abe's father, Bump's older brother Sonny (Xander Berkeley), is released from prison and rejoins the family, seemingly determined to restore some semblance of domestic tranquility. Sonny is a pragmatist and a criminal - his goal is not to reform Bump, only to get him to be more responsible and less volatile - but he genuinely cares for his family. As does Bump, albeit in the thwarted, narcissistic way junkies sometimes develop: Bump thinks meth is so wonderful, he sees no sense in denying his bliss to his daughter.
Pomes gets the family dynamics right in Cook County, as Sonny triangulates the tension between Abe and Bump, and smoothly manipulates them for his own purposes. Bump's increasing madness is both intensified and made more dangerous by his isolation - put him in a city, and he's just another raving punk to be crushed by narcs or Alpha thieves. But in the sticks, he's a mad, blind king - a tweaked-up Lear with the means to murder.
And while there's nothing glamorous about Cook County - it doesn't romanticize anything about the drug dealer's milieu, it doesn't make it all look fast and exciting like De Palma's Scarface or even doomy-dreamy like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream - Pomes is honest about why people do drugs. Bump does drugs because drugs feel good. They raise him up from the squalor that is his existence. Meth energizes him, makes him feel alive and powerful ...
Maybe they keep him alive and powerful - within limits. Bump is a monster, but he's also like a lot of people out there. He would rather rule in his proscribed half-acre hell than serve in heaven. He's ugly and dangerous and human, a character worthy of Erskine Caldwell or William Faulkner. Chances are, he will remind you of someone you know. Or someone you lost.
MovieStyle, Pages 37, 42 on 09/11/2009