Scott Cooper combines brooding, blue-collar drama with chilling horror

Scott Cooper is comfortable in the mud. The American director regularly finds himself in the confines of meanness and filth, in gritty landscapes with working-class characters overcoming their shortcomings and often resorting to violence to solve their problems. While his two previous feature films Black Mass and Hostile failed to find tension in their deliberately tedious pace, Drink strikes the balance between methodology, terror and blue-collar dynamics.

Its prologue shows the grime that an unnamed Oregon town has become — sparse Pacific Northwest landscapes, gray air, oil rigs, polluted skies, and unemployed Americans trying to make a living after what was once a mining town has all but descended into a town of the unemployed. Scott Haze plays Frank Weaver, a father of two who leaves one of his sons in the truck as he dives into a cave to make meth with his partner. Surrounded by sacks of medicine that act as defense totems, the pair get ripped off by an identifiable beast, and the son (Sawyer Jones) soon follows.

The twisty, brooding tone that has bogged down Cooper’s earlier films works well on this genre canvas. From the efficient and chilling prologue, its camera slowness creates real tension in not knowing what may be around every corner. We are soon introduced to Julia Meadows’ (Keri Russell) classroom, talking to her 12-year-olds about myths and tales. The obvious thematic pairing between the protagonist and the story makes eyes spin even as it moves Drink in the right direction. Julia is the sister of town sheriff Paul Medows (Jesse Plemons), and both have a history marked by trauma – an abusive father is seen in subtle flashbacks, random household items while stirring up terrible memories for the brothers and sisters. She will often glance at vodka shooters who bring up nightmarish memories or apologize to Plemons for leaving him with their father. Plemons is brilliant as a regular and reluctant sheriff, recalling his work on the Fargo series.

Russell also stands out as a wounded soul slowly recovering, trying to save young Lucas Weaver (Jeremy Thomas), whom she recognizes as in need of help – his family’s scars resonate within him. The first-time child actor excels as he burrows into darkness and the depths of abuse, quietly uncomfortable in his own skin but also believable as someone strong enough to care for. his sick family. Lucas has sketches of the beast hidden in his office along with books on ancient beasts and spirituality, leading Russell down the rabbit hole and discovering the dirty, neglected house where the beast-possessed father lives.

Overt generational scars are vividly depicted, with weavers and meadows having to deal with wounds pierced by failing patriarchs. Cooper is also interested in the insatiable hunger of capitalism that has bled this town, much like the beast that only wants to eat and eat, leaving the town undernourished and creating a desperation that brings out the worst in its people. The body horror is beautifully gross and terrifying, with an obvious influence from producer Guillermo Del Toro and some David Cronenberg shining through as the woodwinds rip through human flesh. One scene, where an antler rips the mouth off one of the bodies it possesses, is particularly memorable in its viscerality.

Cooper’s foray into horror goes awry when it comes to the otherness of Indigenous peoples. Former Sheriff Stokes (Graham Greene), a Native American, is the one who discovers the first corpse left by the beast and it is he who recognizes what evil tore these bodies apart. But it’s also up to him – in a strangely ineffective and laughable scene – to explain to white people the reasons for this terror. What is not fed will accordingly turn into a beast and kill. It doesn’t add any deeper meaning to the story, sounding oddly like Cooper’s attempt to make a “racism is bad” movie with Hostile, where Christian Bale must overcome his bigotry. Native peoples’ mythmaking is supposed to be magical realism, a term that most native people hate; for them, it is not magic but reality. So when Cooper shoehorns this lazy exposition in the final act, the narrative takes a wrong turn. Had the film been absent from this attempt at indigenous lore, the impact would have been the same. Instead, Cooper creates another superficial trope of a people so often maligned in American cinema.

Drink is at its best when grounded in family trauma haunted by the mythical terrors of the beast. The mystery conjured up by the elder weaver’s condition adds palpable unease, but it’s the ideas of the physical versus the spiritual, how families must overcome the worst of their scars to move on, that resonate most. It’s not the first time Cooper has attempted to capture the rarity of a vanishing town, but unlike Out of the oven––which had little to say beyond its inhabited setting––Drink is primarily a hit because it combines grounded blue-collar drama with spooky horror overtones.

Drink hits theaters on Friday, October 29.

Elizabeth J. Harless