Crass, Campy, Comedic: Cocaine Bear

Elizabeth Banks’ most recent movie to hit the big screen is a sometimes-tragic, often-comedic story about the power of family and the importance of being ecologically aware. But it’s mostly about the murderous rampage of a heavily inebriated apex predator.

A somewhat tragic taxidermy of the real cocaine bear in a Kentucky mall.

Cocaine Bear centers around, unsurprisingly, cocaine. Based incredibly loosely on the true story of a drug smuggling incident gone wrong, the movie’s opening number is simultaneously its most realistic: drug smuggler Andrew Thornton launches duffle bags full of cocaine out of a spiraling plane before parachuting to his death on the asphalt of suburban Tennessee. Overlaid with real television footage from when Thornton’s body was discovered in September 1985, the film sets its tone immediately: chaotic, gory, and absolutely over-the-top. When this sequence ends, however, the real movie starts, and along with it the break from reality. When a 175-pound black bear was found dead in Chattahoochee National Forest in December of 1985, only trace amounts of the drug were found in its bloodstream, and there were no civilian casualties; the bear died by itself in the woods. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden called his script a “twisted fantasy,” what might have happened if the circumstances were different. And circumstances certainly are in the universe of Cocaine Bear, where Chattahoochee National Forest and the aptly named Blood Mountain are the site of massive carnage.

Keri Russell as Sari, a mother and school nurse, hiding from the cocaine bear.

The bear appears on-screen very early on, wherein it kills an Icelandic tourist and leaves her fiancé running for mercy, but this scene is meant only to create tension and establish the bear as a threat. From there, the movie takes a break to establish each character, and what brings them together into the park. The innocent protagonists of this story include Dee Dee and Henry, two middle-schoolers who skip class to go visit the waterfall and Dee Dee’s mother Sari who goes to find them accompanied by the obtrusive and useless park ranger Liz. Then there’s Ray Liotta (to whom the movie was dedicated, as Liotta died in May of 2022) as drug kingpin Syd White, who sends his lackey Daveed and his son Eddie to retrieve the shipment of cocaine that Thornton dropped in the forest. Rounding out the main cast are Bob, a Georgia detective who hears a rumor that the remaining cocaine is in Chattahoochee, and the Duchamps gang, three juvenile delinquents who rob park visitors. 

Cocaine Bear is first and foremost a comedy horror movie: its 95 minute runtime features eleven deaths (ten of them bear-related), some incredibly absurd gore (at one point the bear does a line of cocaine off of a bloody detached leg), and kilos upon kilos of cocaine. But the plot does touch briefly upon some greater themes that tie it together beyond being an hour and a half long gorefest. Banks herself called the movie a “subtle critique of the ‘Just Say No’ era and the War on Drugs,” adding that the bear is a victim who has drugs fall “into her lap like she had no choice.” There are small hints to this message throughout: corrupt drug agents, or the middle schoolers’ glorifying (and eating) of cocaine. But beyond that, the themes that I drew from my viewing of Cocaine Bear focused more on family and the environment. Three different family dynamics are shown throughout the movie, and the idea of real vs. found family is explored. Additionally, there’s an unavoidable message of ecological awareness present. It’s expressed literally through a park ranger character who preaches respect for nature, but the movie doesn’t even need to go that far; the idea of a coked-up bear killing humans in a forest feels pretty spot-on regardless. 

The main character of Cocaine Bear, backlit by a fog of cocaine.

It’s not necessary to read even a little bit into these themes when watching Cocaine Bear, though. The movie is self-aware enough to realize most viewers are just there to see the rampage of a crazy bear on cocaine, and there’s nothing really didactic about it at all. I think Cocaine Bear was a great, entertaining watch, and was helped by its short runtime. It’s a short, sweet movie that packs in the action while still allowing breathing room to create tension. Plus, the gore was never excessive, it stayed campy enough to be entertaining for someone who’s not a big horror movie fan. Cocaine Bear knows what it’s about and executes it well, making it a truly entertaining watch.