Two superb movies have just been released, each exploring aspects of the drug trade.
Clint Eastwood's The Mule shows us an old man caught up in the world of drug distribution, and Ben is Back shows us in close-up how drug dependence affects not only the addict but those who care for them.
Ben (Lucas Hedges) shows up at his family home on Christmas Eve, as he has done, disastrously, on the previous two years. This is not a feel-good movie. Peter Hedges (Lucas' father) has written a powerful script that spares no-one and jangles every nerve. Under the apparently urbane surface of a middle-class American community, the effects of drug addiction run searingly deep, as the loving and healing messages of Christmas contrast with experiences of betrayal and death.
Ben, on the one hand, pulls at our heartstrings, as we see who he once was and who he wants to be – kind and caring. On the other hand, we see what he has become, desperate, selfish and manipulative – the person who has made his mother take out a second mortgage on her house to try to pay off the damage Ben has inflicted; the person who sold drugs to feed his habit, leading to the death of a friend.
This is not Julia Roberts as Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts plays the part of Holly, displaying, as Louise Keller writes, "concern, relief, revulsion, dismay, pity, regret, fear, determination, desperation and love" – but not the love of soft sentiment, more the tough love of the lioness for her cub, as she takes her son to the cemetery demanding that he show her where he wants to be buried, and the searing anger of the betrayed, as she confronts the doctor whose careless prescriptions created Ben's addiction to Oxycontin.
The collateral damage is unremitting and sears into our consciousness.
Will Ben's better nature win out, or will his sense of worthlessness lead him to destroy himself for, as he sees it, the good of his family?
The action moves towards one of the darkest and most intense final scenes of any movie I have seen for many years, as Ben's self-loathing desire to make recompense for the suffering he has caused, at whatever cost, is countered by the tough unremitting uncompromising ruthless love of his mother, as both do battle with the world of the drug dealer who sees all the players in the game as disposable.
Do not go to "Ben is Back" expecting a "feel-good" movie: but do go – you will not regret it.