I saw Cocaine Bear in theaters eight months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Directed by Elizabeth Banks of Pitch Perfect fame, Cocaine Bear tells the true—albeit slightly embellished—story of a bear who ate millions of dollars worth of cocaine in 1985. As someone with very little experience with cocaine, I liked it. As someone with a lot of experience with bears, I loved it.
The film begins with sweeping shots of the Appalachian Mountains, setting a beautiful background for the horrors of this film. The aesthetic of the 1980s appeals to a generation obsessed with Y2K fashion and Stranger Things. The characters range from a pair of Scandinavian hikers to a nurse named Sari and her young daughter, her daughter’s best friend, a park ranger, a group of coked-out teenagers, a Tennessean police detective, his shih tzu puppy, a drug dealer, his best friend, who happens to be the son of Ray Liotta’s drug cartel leader, and—of course—the titular Cocaine Bear.
For all the common reasons that lead people to the woods (hiking, painting, millions of dollars worth of cocaine, etc.), all these characters wander out into Chattahoochee National Recreation Area (I’ve camped there!), where they run into the increasingly violent and silly CGI star of the show: Cocaine Bear.
The first half of the movie follows those characters into the woods as they meet each other, and potentially their demise, as they encounter Cocaine Bear. The best scenes in the film are those where the characters interact with each other—their dialogue is hilarious and natural. I, unfortunately, cannot speak to the excellence of the other scenes of the movie because anytime Cocaine Bear emerged from the shadows I immediately hid my face in my hands because blood and guts are gross.
Ray Liotta’s entrance in the latter half of the film starts with a mile-long rifle shot that no one sees coming. His character’s cold-blooded, ruthless pursuit of cocaine rivals that of Cocaine Bear herself. Even his motivation in finding the cocaine is to protect his son and grandson from retaliation by the drug cartels. That and the millions of dollars he would make from the cocaine. But mostly the son thing.
The big reveal towards the end of the film that the Cocaine Bear herself has two bear cubs (who are also doing cocaine) hits at exactly the right moment. Just when you can feel yourself emotionally pulling away from the obviously humanized bear, she is humanized even more.
As Cocaine Bear faces off the drug dealers and Sari with her kids, it dawns on the audience that Sari has been a foil for Cocaine Bear this whole time: both are mothers who want to keep their children safe and provide for them. The only difference is that Cocaine Bear is providing her cubs with cocaine and Sari is providing the children a chance to not get viciously killed by a bear.
Cocaine Bear is shot by Ray Liotta and falls, seemingly to her death, in a manner that looks an awful lot like the scene where Javert jumps to his death in Les Misérables. I teared up. She’s just a bear. A bear that did cocaine. It’s not her fault.
But mere seconds later, to my delight, as cocaine rains down like snow, Cocaine Bear is resurrected and lives to see another day and snort another line of coke.
For someone who hates horror movies and goes out of her way not to watch them, this was a horror movie I paid money to see. I was able to forgive the blood and gore for the comedy and the fact that it’s about a bear on cocaine. One might argue that there was too much cocaine and too little bear in this film. I think it was just right. I laughed, I cringed, and I left the theater changed. Be sure to stay for the after-credits scene that reveals the next film in the Cocaine Bear saga: Cocaine Sheep.
It’s good to get into something on the ground floor. Sometimes, lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over. But then I remember that I was born just in time to watch Cocaine Bear in theaters, and that is enough.
Carlisle Patete (‘22) came to Calvin University from the mountains of North Carolina and graduated with a double major in film & media and creative writing. Today, she lives in Chicago, Illinois, where she enjoys pretending to be the main character on the L and has become the Bean’s biggest fan.