Cocaine Bear: Marxism is not a Moralism


The white dust has settled on the reception of Cocaine Bear (2023). The bear—an embodiment of the “When animals attack”-sub-genre shifting in and out of the monstrous creature-feature (i.e., Alien, 1979) as a critique of “social relations”—has been read as the revenge of mother nature—yes, critics continue to use this phrase—for human crimes against animals and their environments. On the other hand, this B-movie update on the wild (Grizzly, 1976) and domesticated (Cujo, 1983) animal attack film has been condemned for being a … B-movie, suggesting a bit of bad faith in that the film does all it can as an apex of animal horror: gore, laughter in the dark, well-choreographed-edited action-violence, inventive kills and elegant découpage, or how the shots are cut together. Take a look at Montage, Découpage, Mise en Scène: Essays on Film Form (Le Forestier, Barnard & Kessler, 2020) for a resuscitation of this formal term.

Thinking through how the two positions relate to each other leads to a querying, in turn, of snobbish dismissals of Cocaine Bear. Might not this taste-signaling be a way of side-stepping how its genre-encoded critique of capitalism bars any easy recourse to the sentimental trope of Nature? In other words, if the first position articulates an allegorical style of reading, the second emerges as a moral condemnation enabling viewers to feel good about themselves while simultaneously overlooking the generic-formal achievements of Cocaine Bear (see Donald Pease, New American Exceptionalism, 2009, for a critique of ideological Dr. Feelgoods, 23). In what follows, I will tweak the allegory beyond the moralistic comforts that a pre-critical notion of Nature distributes so as to stress what the bear embodies: addiction, or the addictive infrastructure of consumerism that makes the whole system go.

Over the Hedge (2006), an animated feature situated in the consumerist ex-urbs rather than spatio-temporally distanced in Madagascar, Antarctica or the Ice Age, anticipates the allegory-under-construction. A thieving raccoon destroys a selfish bear’s collection of human treats, including Pringle-like chips, kickstarting the hijinks. The raccoon must recover, on pain of death, all the bear’s junk. So he gets a bunch of animals addicted to Cheetos and like trash so that they can help him rob the humans and repay the bear: “Cause with a Spuddie [a cheaper, non-product placement methadone version of Pringles] enough just isn’t enough,” the bear roars: “And I want my Spuddies. I love those things!”. In 2006, a moral message triumphs: the animals return to their nuts, the homeowner association boss and the exterminator are punished and the bear is exiledto a nature reserve where he will presumably return to a less estranging diet. His reincarnation as a mama bear developing a taste for cocaine in a shabbily curated national park intimates that nostalgic returns are no longer possible.

First, the bear’s story. A member of the upper classes from a Kentucky horse-breeding family has gone rogue, flying in marijuana and then cocaine on private planes. A 1985 trip, however, goes bad and the American military-trained parachutist-pilot jumps out with bags of coke. In reality, a bear ate a bit and died. In the film, she ingests more and more, inciting the rampage that the title promises. A mobster sends his fixer to pick up the contraband. Interactions with a ranger, a “wildlife inspection rep.,” “pop art”-criminals, non-/dirty cops, and a single mom trying to save the children ensue.

The mobster must regain the packages or else he will be killed by the cartel—the Colombians, these days Mexican and Calabrian global groups—, or, allegorically speaking, the capitalist class, the legitimization of dirty money being standard operating procedure for both legal and illegal investors, as well as a basic gangster genre trope. Everybody else instances a working/lower middle class striving for a more solid class position, as is signified by the clean black cop’s desire to adopt a silly white toy dog, a domesticated entity par excellence.

Yet the bear is not untainted nature. It literalizes how human productivity- which cocaine and the social mobility of coked-up labor and leisure seemingly enable—has overrun animal habitats, such as the highway traffic that destroys the bear’s stash in Over the Hedge thanks to the scavenger. So too, in Ticks (1984), a steroid-enhanced marijuana accidentally results in a monstrous mutant insect attack. One cannot say the bear is corrupted by coke since she loves it insofar as it makes her and her cubs more effective scavenger-predators: resistors to human encroachment. Coke is like the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the next step in survivalist evolution. Any suspicions that this reading is merely yet another hot take can be allayed by taking note of the bear’s first and last kills (the cubs join in the final battle!). First, we have a Scandinavian couple, who think themselves privileged to catch a snap of this animeme: “We have such good luck in nature”. Another hapless family of paparazzi is similarly victimized. The allegorical point seems clear: bears attack the touristic fetishization of “nature” into a moral high ground, suggesting that when humans desire the fantasy of living-according-to-naturethey are desiring an image, a photo or painting, in short, a set of tropes. What is perhaps needed instead is a sea-change in social relations and the more strategic, tactical and logistical ideations that might involve.

The bear destroys the feel-good fantasy, foregrounding the capitalist co-optation of the less-than-middle-classes via the addictive infrastructure of consumerism. Think of the hard-rocking anthem that opens the film by focusing on the only upper middle-class person involved, a slumming drug smuggler rockin’ out as he bails on his plane. How much mayhem, socially-accredited asociality and self-centered money-making (such as the smuggler’s shift to from weed to far more profitable “White Lines”) do songs like this impel? “Jane” by Starship Trooper is, after all, a hyper-suitable tune for a coke binge, fast, furious and reckless driving or an over-the-top industry party: Freedom at Point Zero (1979) at the dawn of eighties neo-liberalism.

So it doesn’t matter if its cocaine or THC, movies or music, chips or Coca-Cola, the people are interpellated by addicting things masquerading as reified “social relations”. Addiction to sensational cinematic violence is referenced at the end of the film where the human mother tells one of her two cubs not to look at the carnage left behind by the film’s de Palma-level set-piece even as the kid desperately wants to look. Needless to say the song that fueled this prime slice of découpage was Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” (1981). Cocaine Bear’s allegorical deconstruction of the addictive infrastructure of capitalist a-sociality ends here. Not only are audiences addicted to consuming on-screen violence to the wick—the current trends being horror and superhero genres at the low and high ends of the budget spectrum, with video games rising—they then deny this addiction for a version of the same, an addiction to moralistic condemnations that misrecognizes critical estrangement in the tradition of Shklovsky, Brecht, Cahiers du Cinéma, Screen and so on. It all comes down to the same on the slippery surfaces of late capitalism: “He’s the one they call Dr. Feelgood/ He’s the one that makes you feel all right” (1989). And if Mötley Crüe seems like an unfortunate reference, Cocaine Bear‘s reception also reminds that the populist anti-populist aspiration to middling class good taste—in morality above all—can only stand in the way of revolution. The super-cartels gave up on good taste a long time ago.