Top 10 Movies with Characters Who Fell Off the Wagon—And Came Back

Top 10 Movies with Characters Who Fell Off the Wagon—And Came Back

By Paul Fuhr 03/24/17

After my relapse, I turned to the only thing that gave me any comfort at all: movies. I searched for any sign or shred of someone who resembled the broken alcoholic that I’d become. Here are the ones I found.

Image: 
William Whitaker (Denzel Washington) looks at a mini bar in Flight.
Movies for the relapsed starving for hope.

Not long after checking out of treatment for alcoholism, I found myself sitting in a parked car, chugging a tall boy of Miller Light. To this day, I don’t know how I ended up there. My throat burned from the cold beer while the rest of me burned with instant regret. Weeks of AA meetings and counseling sessions and me artfully dodging the Kroger wine aisle vanished. In seconds, I’d undone all of the careful work I’d begun in rehab. After that relapse, I was terrified of myself. Apparently, I was capable of sabotaging myself without any warning. So, I turned to the only thing that gave me any comfort at all: movies. Suddenly, I was on a mission. I scoured my DVD collection. I studied the Redbox machine so long that it bothered people. I suddenly started maxing out our DVR by recording everything imaginable. (Sorry, Wife’s Grey’s Anatomy. There’s just no room for you anymore.)

I searched for any sign or shred of someone who resembled the broken alcoholic that I’d become. It’s not unlike when 9/11 happened and, suddenly, you couldn’t find one copy of Armageddon at Blockbuster. Everyone was watching the funhouse-mirror version of catastrophe. Maybe it simply makes more sense to see Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck reacting to tragedy. I wasn’t any different, though. Right after my relapse, I was desperate to see myself on the screen. And characters with drinking problems aren’t all that hard to find. After all, on-screen alcoholics tend to be window dressings. They’re a lazy screenwriter’s plot detail. Besides, cinema history has enough alcoholic characters to populate a page-a-day calendar: Paul Newman’s creaky lawyer in The Verdict; the weary-eyed Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven; Jack Nicholson’s unshaven-and-unhinged turn in The Shining. I wasn’t looking for suffering, though. I wasn’t looking for another unemployed father of two who hid pints of vodka in the couch cushions, either. No, I was starved for hope. I needed to see someone who’d slipped like I had, but came out on the other end stronger.

I can’t identify with someone maniacally laughing at a ghost bartender. For me, the real movie heroes are the characters who found sobriety, fell apart, and then pulled themselves back together. For me, the possibility of picking up a bottle again is just like that cinematic time-bomb clicking down to zero. Relapses are the plot twist I desperately try to avoid. In recovery, though, I have the tools to rewrite my life’s third act. Here are 10 films (in no particular order) that feature characters who also managed to avoid the sad, scripted fate of many alcoholics and addicts.


Independence Day (1996)

This may fall in the “Lazy Screenwriting” category, but a list like this wouldn’t be complete without including Randy Quaid’s crocked crop duster, Russell Casse. Cartoonish by any definition, the war veteran recounts having sobriety and a good life before aliens abducted him years before, ruining everything. He’s the shell of his former self, aimless and without purpose. Still, he manages to find his purpose by sobering up, delivering one of the most cringe-worthy lines in movie history, and saving the world.


Flight (2012)

Near my alcoholic bottom, I stumbled into Flight thinking it was going to be a nonstop thrill ride about Denzel Washington’s piloting heroics. Turns out, I was in for a harsh look in the mirror. As William “Whip” Whittaker, Washington paints a haunting, bleak portrait of addiction—not to mention reminding us that not all heroes are who they appear to be. Washington’s greatest trick, though, is managing to never turn his character into a drunken caricature. The scene where he’s sequestered in a hotel room is one of the most achingly honest portrayals of what an alcoholic relapse looks and feels like. (Even the screenplay beautifully nails it on pp. 125-126.) While the movie revolves around the 747, Flight reveals that when it comes to addiction, people are far more complicated machines.


The World’s End (2013)

At first glance, this comedy is nothing more than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost hilariously fighting off an alien invasion in their hometown. But if that’s all you see, you’re missing one of the cleverest meditations on recovery ever made. A 40-year-old Gary King (Simon Pegg) reunites all of his high school buddies to retrace their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier. However, unbeknownst to everyone else, there’s more to Gary’s bender than meets the eye. Turns out, he’s recently flushed out of treatment and is both depressed and suicidal. It takes aliens knocking Earth back to the Dark Ages for Gary to be freed from the prison of addiction. When Gary enters a saloon at the end and asks for water, he’s alive and heroic for the very first time in his life.


Walk the Line (2005)

I knew absolutely nothing about Johnny Cash before seeing Walk the Line. He was one of those artists that my friends’ dads loved, but that’s the extent of it. I didn’t exactly see a lot of Johnny Cash posters hanging in bedrooms. It’s no wonder this film was as embraced as it was, garnering several awards along the way. Cash’s descent into alcoholism and addiction is painful to watch as it hits close to home. He tries to get his life back together in order to woo June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) but fails. He dives right back into drinking and drugging. He wakes up in detox with June by his side, which gives him all the strength he needs to hit the right notes once again.


Smashed (2012)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s criminally overlooked performance in this drama is devastating and uplifting by equal measure. As the wife in an alcoholic married couple who decides to gets sober, she upends everything she and her husband understand about the world. After getting a few months of sobriety under her belt, she loses her job as a schoolteacher. Her reaction? She heads to the nearest bar with the sort of dazed, senseless autopilot that’s all too familiar for an alcoholic like me. Haunted by her relapse, she pulls herself together and forges ahead into the great unknown of sobriety. In the film’s last moments where she celebrates a year sober, it’s clear she had to shatter completely before she can finally become whole.


The Spectacular Now (2013)

Largely ignored, this film follows high-school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) as he desperately tries to avoid becoming like his absent, alcoholic father. Without his father, he lives in an emotional vacuum. Sutter tries acting the part of a world-weary adult (he buys his sort-of girlfriend a flask as a gift) that betrays his years. In the end, he’s just lost. He passes out on lawns, breaks promises, and sloppily lives life. Throughout the movie, he manages to sometimes put together some sober time, but it’s never real. It’s always just talk and always for show, because that’s all he knows from his father. That’s what leads to one of the most cathartic endings in recent memory as Keely moves past his latest relapse, stops talking, and finally acts.


Crazy Heart (2009)

As faded country star Otis “Bad” Blake, Jeff Bridges wears the expression of someone who’s convinced all of his good days are far behind him. At one point in his career, he was clear-headed, put-together and capable of not destroying the lives around him. Still, Crazy Heart chronicles the toll that all the one-night stands and bowling-alley gigs have taken on him. After the one-two punch of wrecking his truck and losing a child in a shopping mall, Blake’s life isn’t all that different from the plot of a country song. Still, Blake again finds sobriety and unexpectedly manages to add a few extra lyrics to the song of his life.


Rio Bravo (1959)

Old-school Westerns are Ground Zero for terrible, excused alcoholic behavior. When they’re not busy glorifying the lawless violence of the Old West, they romanticize the hard-drinking characters at their centers. Rio Bravo follows beleaguered Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) as he tries to keep the brother of an outlaw locked up in the local jail. The heart of this classic, however, is the sheriff’s deputy Dude—also known as Borrachón, which translates to “Big Drunk.” (It’s probably worth noting that Dude is, ironically, played by scotch-soaked crooner Dean Martin.) None of the film’s shootouts or spectacle can compete with the tension of watching Dude struggle to remain sober after losing it in the film’s taut opening sequence. While he has a few close calls with the bottle, Martin manages to make his character the genuine hero of Rio Bravo: an endearing alcoholic whose resolve becomes more powerful than any six-shooter.


Permanent Midnight (1998)

Any film that has Ben Stiller shooting heroin into his neck while his infant daughter sits in the back of a car is eye-opening. While the film itself can’t compete with the visceral intensity of Jerry Stahl’s autobiography,. Stiller nevertheless manages to deliver a high-wire performance that’s the definition of controlled chaos: he’s all at once manic, subdued and crawling out of his own skin. After ups and downs in treatment centers, Stiller’s Stahl emerges on the other side of it all as a sober, strong man who “got out with a bad liver and enough debt to keep me in hock ‘til I’m 90, if I’m still here.”


Half Nelson (2006)

Somewhere between Ryan Gosling’s turn in the unapologetically weepy The Notebook and the Hollywood love-letter musical La La Land, he was Dan Dunne—a middle-school history teacher in Brooklyn who loves the kinetic energy of debating with his students. Once a sober, straight-minded scholar, Dunne is now leading a double life as a drug addict. Dunne’s two worlds eventually bleed into one another (as most addicts’ stories do) and he’s forced to confront some ugly truths about himself. In the film’s final scene, with the help of a student, he goes to the bathroom to clean himself up and face the future. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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