When Elizabeth Banks decided to make “Cocaine Bear,” the world around her was — literally and figuratively — on fire. “I was feeling very chaotic when I read this script,” Banks tells POPSUGAR. “We were in the middle of the pandemic. We were still wiping down groceries. There were fires everywhere in California. The world was chaos. Then I read the script and I thought, well, there’s nothing more chaotic than a bear who’s high on cocaine.”
“Cocaine Bear” is, indeed, loosely based on a true story about a bear who stumbled upon some cocaine. In 1985, a bear in a forest near Blue Ridge, Georgia was found dead after ingesting part of a duffel bag filled with the drug — however, no one knows what happened in the immediate aftermath of the animal’s accidental drug binge.
Banks’s dramatization of the events involves a wacky cast of characters who encounter the bear during its, ahem, altered state. This includes two uncomfortable little kids, their mom, a group of knife-wielding teens looking for trouble, a park ranger, and the wildlife inspector she’s desperate to impress. It also features a trio of drug dealers searching for the lost cocaine, which includes Alden Ehrenreich as the grieving Eddie, O’Shea Jackson as the disgruntled Daveed, and Ray Liotta — who is excellently outlandish in his last film role before his death — as drug kingpin Syd. From start to finish, the whole thing is extremely gory and totally absurd.
It makes sense that “Cocaine Bear” arose from the depths of the hysteria that defined the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone was hoarding toilet paper, tent hospitals were being created in the middle of football fields, and many people felt like the world might quite literally be coming to an end. For Banks, who is remarkably articulate about what drew her to make such an inane film, the story’s madness helped her contextualize the state of the world at that point. “I felt that making this movie as an artist was sort of my way of taming that chaos a little bit,” Banks adds, “and hopefully bringing an audience together for a communal experience of connection and excitement and fun.”
Nearly three years and a whole lot of chaos later, “Cocaine Bear” is finally out in theaters. In addition to seeing the movie as an embodiment of the general mood of the time, the “Charlie’s Angels” and “Pitch Perfect 2” director says she was drawn to the story because she wanted to push herself as a director. In early February, Banks told Variety that she was afraid the movie could be a “career-ender,” but the risk seems to have made her want to pursue it more. “I don’t think we grow if we don’t reach for things that make us a little uncomfortable or that scare us a little bit,” she says. “Don’t do something you’re comfortable with. I mean, you can, but you’re not gonna grow as a person.”
That sentiment seems to be shared by the characters of “Cocaine Bear,” who pursue the enraged animal — and eventually her cubs — despite the extreme danger. But while Banks isn’t afraid to slide feet-first into potentially precarious situations like her characters, she also sees another side to “Cocaine Bear.” “Don’t go near animals in the woods. They’re wild and you cannot control them,” Banks says. “That is, I think, the hubris of humans, thinking that we can control nature.”
For her, “Cocaine Bear” is also a cautionary tale, one that reminds us that we can’t expect to do whatever we want to nature without it eventually fighting back — in the form of things like climate change and the wildfires that raged when Banks first encountered the “Cocaine Bear” script. “That’s for sure a theme of this movie,” Banks says. “Nature is always gonna win.”
Check out more of Banks and her costars O’Shea and Ehrenrich’s thoughts on “Cocaine Bear” in the video above.