Over the last four years, AMC drama "Breaking Bad" has earned a reputation as one of the best shows on television. The saga of a high school chemistry teacher embroiled in meth production, it treats the drug and its users as the pitiable victims of larger interests. Anyone seeking an alternative perspective should look no further than "Cook County," writer-director David Pomes' grimy, unsettling debut, where a hoard of unsalvageable East Texas addicts dominate the screen.
A focus on the daily habits of meth addicts is the main strength of this otherwise murky work, which lacks focus but maintains a grim outlook that sets it apart from more popular takes on addiction and drug production. There's nothing slick or entertaining about the crumbling existence of Pomes' unsalvageable antiheroes.
The movie emphasizes the relentless lunacy that afflicts meth addicts and their crumbling world. At its center, head addict Tommy (Anson Mount), known to most by the not-so-subtle nickname "Bump," maintains a deteriorating meth lab in a country shack. Everything about Bump's announces his imminent destruction. His motherless 11-year-old daughter (Makenna Fitzsimmons) is near the reckless drug parties he somehow manages to throw each night. His teenage nephew Abe (Ryan Donowho) lingers in the background, equally horrified by his uncle's behavior and seemingly unable to pull himself away.
Bump's older brother Sonny (Xander Berkeley) enters the wreckage with the swagger of a wannabe savior. Fresh from a stint in jail and allegedly drug-free, Sonny tries to get Bump to simmer down and sober up. While attempting to repair his relationship with Abe and figure out a solution to the family's supreme dysfunction, Sonny emerges as the sanest character in an otherwise oppressively twisted ensemble.
Given his good intentions, Sonny's presence routinely brightens up "Cook County." However, his character can't counter Mount's absurdly unhinged performance, which dominates most scenes and usually drags down their credibility. Playing a wild-eyed, gun-toting maniac prone to ludicrous tirades, Mount embodies the one-note characterization implied by Bump's nickname. He's a cheap embodiment of stoned lunacy in a movie aiming for naturalism, but Pomes frequently gives Bump the stage and nearly destroys the movie in the process.
From his early scenes, it's clear that Bump suffers from an addiction that has withered his mental acuity beyond repair; later, he devolve into a full-fledged villain. Over the course of 93 minutes, he stops looking like a diseased man and transforms into the actual disease, infecting the entire broken household. Pomes makes it impossible to sympathize with this fragile, confused man, while giving him enough screen time to let him steal the show.
"Cook County" may not have intended to provide "Breaking Bad" fans with something to keep them busy while waiting for the show's fifth season, but it provides a reminder of what makes that great show tick: No matter how many bad judgements are made, it always relates to a levelheaded perspective.
That's not to say that the movie fails to achieve its goals. As a chronicle of addiction, it occasionally hits on emotional profundity in small moments, establishing its director (who has already started production on a bigger feature) as a filmmaker with an eye for contained settings and intimate moments. As Sonny tells his son during a stroll through the woods: "Sometimes, pretty flowers grow out of a pile of shit." Pomes proves that assertion to a fault.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Cook County" opens on Friday in New York after a long festival run stretching back to 2009. Mixed reviews and a relatively unknown cast (Mount currently stars on AMC's "Hell on Wheels") make its box office prospects dicey, although it will help keep Pomes on the map for the release of his upcoming sophomore effort.