Addiction, you could say (and I would), has become the central demon that plagues Americans. We’re addicted to everything: alcohol, illegal drugs, pharmaceutical drugs, psychotropic drugs, sugar-bomb soft drinks, processed food, video screens…you name it. In theory, addiction was made for drama, because it rips up the fabric of people’s lives, and that’s intensely dramatic. Beyond that, many addicts — I can’t think of a way to put this tactfully, so I won’t — are drama queens. (That’s part of why they’re addicts.)
Yet even as the addiction memoir became one of the most popular forms of our time, the addiction movie has struggled to catch on. There aren’t a lot of great ones, and most of them (like, recently, “Beautiful Boy” or “Ben Is Back”) tend to come and go without leaving an imprint. Will the same fate befall “Four Good Days,” a Sundance drama of addiction that’s sensitively written and staged (by director and co-writer Rodrigo Garcia) and performed with lacerating honesty by its two leads, Glenn Close and Mila Kunis? Here’s why I think that could happen.
“Four Good Days” tells the story of an addict, Molly (Kunis), who has been on heroin, methadone, crack, and Adderall for 10 years and shows no signs of recovering. She’s been in and out of detox 14 times, but she always goes back to getting high. In the opening scene, when she shows up at the door of her mother, Deb (Close), who would do anything to save her but feels as if she’s already done everything (and that none of it has worked), the audience is placed in the position of asking the same thing that Deb — or anyone else — would ask. Namely: What’s going to make this time different?
That’s the only question you can ask. But in “Four Good Days,” it’s a question at once valid and vaguely annoying, since the only answer is that what’s going to be different this time is that the movie needs a different outcome. Or we wouldn’t have a movie.
The sight of an addict’s descent still carries a powerful shock value. And Kunis, a fine actress, has undergone one of those physical transformations that spells “awards bait,” yet it’s incredibly effective because of the way she acts from inside her degraded appearance. Molly, who has been living on the streets, has scraggly blonde hair with three-inch black roots and a tail-end explosion of dyed green, and she’s emaciated, with mottled skin that’s beyond sallow — it looks like a color you might call corpse beige. And that’s not even the worst part. Begging her mother to let her inside, she keeps holding her hand in front of her mouth, and when Deb forces her to take the hand down, we see why. Instead of a top row of teeth, all she has is rotting gums.
It’s a gruesome vision, but it also tells us something about what’s going on inside Molly. If she’s this much of a living-dead specimen, she’s also not someone to trust or believe. And Deb lets us know that she’s been through the cycle of trust and betrayal too many times to count.
She drives Molly down to the detox clinic, where Molly stays for three days, and that’s where the doctor unveils a shred of hope. He offers to give Molly a shot of Naltrexone, a drug that eliminates, for one month, the highs of opioids, and the cravings for them as well. But you can’t have any drugs in your system when you get the injection. So Molly, coming out of detox, must stay with her mother for the next four days and remain clean.
“Four Good Days” is based on a true story, and the way it plays out is both watchable and plausible. Yet the movie doesn’t shake us to our souls. When it comes to serious addiction, we’ve grown, as a society, far more sophisticated about the patterns of craving, narcissism, and deception that define the addict’s life. So we demand a baseline truth from a drama of recovery. And here’s what that truth is: An addict like Molly has just two options — keep on using, or buckle down and quit. And when you’re watching a movie about someone who faces that choice, there’s actually not a lot of drama to it.
Yet “Four Good Days” is a more compelling movie than, say, “Beautiful Boy,” because Close and Kunis perform it with a darkly corresponding fury. Close, as she demonstrated in “The Wife,” is a wizard at playing honorable women graced (or is it cursed?) with hellbent operatic bullshit detectors. In “Four Good Days,” her Deb longs for Molly to get better, and would do anything to help her, yet she’s been played one too many times, and stolen from. (Molly pawned her wedding ring.) Her decision to guard Molly’s well-being is laced with paranoia, and justifiably so; she has to become a fanatic prison warden just to give her daughter a chance. Close, acting with foul-mouthed bravura, shows us the moral urgency of a parent who will oppress her child in order to save her.
Kunis does something every bit as impressive. She buries her personality under the itchy tics and strategies of someone so far gone that they’ve forgotten what real life is. How did Molly become an addict? Or, if one can say this without violating the addiction-is-a-disease ethos, why did she become one? The smartest thing about “Four Good Days” is that it provides many intermeshed conflicting reasons, and says that they’re all true. Molly’s addiction started when she was 17 and sprained her knee while skiing. The doctor gave her a prescription for OxyContin, and this has left Deb in a rage against the medical establishment. At the detox center, she’ll lash out at any doctor or assistant and say, “You did this!” And in a way she’s right.
But there are personal dimensions too, like the fact that Deb, years ago, split from her bad marriage, semi-abandoning her children (who, of course, thought it was all their fault). The movie fills in the life that Molly left behind, and most of these scenes are adequate but rote. We meet Molly’s ex-husband (Joshua Leonard) and the two kids she abandoned. We meet her highly functional but obnoxious lawyer sister. We meet her selfish but level-headed dad (Sam Hennings). And this, frankly, is what we used to call TV-movie stuff.
Will she or won’t she? (Relapse, that is.) That’s the only question of any real dramatic import in “Four Good Days.” And the way it plays out, to give the film credit, hinges on a convincing twist that we weren’t expecting. Yet as decent as the movie is, I have my doubts as to whether “Four Good Days,” in the real world, will be anything more than another earnest addiction drama that falls by the wayside. The reason, I think, relates to something about addicts that these movies have come to understand almost too well. As any 12-step veteran will tell you, the scariest thing about everyday life that the addict will do anything to get away from is that underneath it all, life — to the addict — seems boring. And that, in a way, is the problem with these movies. They mirror the addict’s vision. They seem to be running from the dullness at their core.