“Flight” is as strong as it is because it never pulls punches when it comes to portraying the dark side of protagonist Whip Whitaker’s (Denzel Washington) alcoholism. Whip’s character arc is as moving as it is because he’s surrounded by people that don’t know how to help him and people that want to hide him away so he can’t further embarrass them. Addiction is presented as an individual’s choice, albeit one that is incredibly hard to stop making, and “Flight” is just the latest in a line of humane and unsentimental dramas about alcoholics. From the horrors of finding one more drink in “The Lost Weekend” to the bitterly funny skid row life depicted in both “Barfly” and “Factotum,” this list is dedicated to films that neither baby their audience nor judge their protagonists too harshly. So before you see “Flight,” check out these five superior alcoholism dramas.
Scripted by Charles Bukowski, slice-of-slum-life drama “Barfly” stars Mickey Rourke as regular Bukowski stand-in Henry Chinaski. Unlike Matt Dillon’s version of Chinaski in “Factotum” (see below), Rourke’s Chinaski likes being unmoored and unnoticed by anyone outside of the bars he frequents. His relationship with Faye Dunaway’s Wanda Wilcox is symbiotic in that they both enjoy each other’s company but Chinaski isn’t really dependent on her to get by. That nonchalance defines Bukowski’s fly-on-the-wall style of drama. Chinaski looks down on anyone that makes a big to-do about how they’re feeling, so no surprise when he harasses a couple necking in a car stopped at a red traffic light. Bukowski and “Barfly” director Barbet Schroeder prefer an anecdotal narrative where supporting characters come and go. Chinaski’s lifestyle as a drunk, who also happens to be a talented writer, is subsequently defined by his experiences rather than by contrivance. That matter-of-fact tone allows narrative episodes and bit characters, like Frank Stallone’s belligerent bartending antagonist, room to grow without the added pressure of meaning anything beyond their immediate importance to Chinaski. To be free from the pressures of living a mundane life, Chinaski embraces the instability of his life as a given, making “Barfly” an atypically nuanced character study.
“Days of Wine and Roses”
A simple but devastating concept guides “Days of Wine and Roses,” Blake Edwards’ bittersweet romance: you don’t need alcohol to have an addictive personality. In fact, alcohol doesn’t immediately have a devastating effect on the lives of its two lead protagonists, PR man Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) and secretary Kristen Armesen (Lee Remick). The two meet, he innocuously introduces her to alcohol with a few Brandy Alexanders, and they soon marry. But in time, it becomes apparent that the problem with both Joe and Kristen isn’t that they drink, it’s that they’re predisposed to drink to excess. Joe’s AA sponsor (Jack Klugman) explains this to him later in the film, pointing to Kristen’s habit of snacking on chocolate as a warning of her potential to become an alcholic. And even after Joe gets sober, he doesn’t say that he used to be an alcoholic, but rather that he still is an alcoholic. That self-diagnosis tempers even the film’s most sensational scenes, like the one where Joe stumbles around, bawling and shrieking in vain while looking for a drink. As Klugman’s character says, the alocholic lives in a separate world from society: they just usually don’t know it until they hit rock bottom.
In adapting Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel “Factotum,” co-writer/director Bent Hamer assigned himself the unenviable task of encapsulating Bukowski’s I-hate-everyone-especially-me worldview without making it seem either too self-serving or self-pitying. Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon) is, after all, defined by a queasy feigned indifference towards everyone around him and a trenchant kind of misanthropy. Thankfully, Hamer succeeds in finding the right mix of bitterly funny humor and bleak drama to characterize Chinaski thanks in no small part to Dillon’s versatile performance. As an alcoholic and an intellectual that’s simultaneously too proud and disinterested to hold down menial work, Chinaski craves recognition for his writing. He even suggests to his fair-weather girlfriend Jan (the never-not excellent Lili Taylor) that people only think they need love because affection is one way people show each other that they value each other. And that’s in a weird way what makes “Factotum” so bitterly funny. To get anywhere, Chinaski knows that he’ll have to suck up to people he considers to be his inferiors, people who are presumably lying to themselves when they refuse to empathize with Chinaski. Chinaski’s arrogant, and perpetually self-destructive, but he’s also not wrong.
“Leaving Las Vegas”
While it’s tempting to compare “Leaving Las Vegas” to “The Lost Weekend” (see below), the key difference between Billy Wilder’s wrenching drama about alcoholism and Mike Figgis’ darkly romantic neo-noir is that there’s no hope of recovery for the latter film’s lead protagonist. Washed-up screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. And in spite of her best efforts, Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a lonely prostitute that’s instantly attracted to him, yet can’t steer Ben clear of his suicidal impulses. Worse still, Ben doesn’t have the luxury of being surrounded by a community of friends or loved ones. There’s no kindly bartenders here, nor any magically redemptive qualities to Sera’s love. All that’s left for Ben at this point is a grinding and inevitably fatal binge. Figgis refuses to pity Ben: he’s pathetic and often slovenly but he’s also not without a certain three-sheets-to-the-wind kind of charm. Likewise, it’s to Figgis’ great credit that Sera’s character arc isn’t contrived. Even when Sera hits rock bottom hard, the new low that her own powerlessness brings her to never seems gratuitous within the context of the story that’s being told. And when the film ends, Ben leaves Sera to hit a new low all by herself.
“The Lost Weekend”
Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” is basically a horror film about a washed-up writer whose addiction has taken over his life. The film begins with a long crane shot that initially surveys the buildings on a city block and then hones in on a bottle of whiskey that Ray Milland‘s haunted Don Birnam has secreted in case of such an emergency. Don’s brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) want to take him away from the city for the weekend to help him sober up, but Don is already doing everything short of cartwheels to get that bottle of Rye back. Don’s fears of being alone and desperately in need of a drink in a city full of people that pity him are well-founded. Once he’s pushed Wick and Helen away, Don stumbles around the city alone in search for money enough to buy his next drink. The universe seems to conspire against Don, an alcoholic that’s always perilously close to hitting rock bottom but never quite makes it, until he’s made to see that he’s never really been alone or without resources. Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-heavy score compliments nightmarish scenes like when a bat devours a rat hiding in Don’s apartment, or when Don stumbles around looking for a pawn shop but finds they’re all closed for Yom Kippur. “Lost Weekend” is potent nightmare fuel, right up until its sobering finale.