We Admitted We Were Powerless: Addiction and Recovery in "Clean and Sober" by Daniel Carlson

By Yasmina Tawil


“A searching and fearless moral inventory.” That’s the phrase laid down by Bill W. in the part of AA’s Big Book that outlines the twelve steps needed for recovery. Inventory’s the fourth step, and it means taking an account of everything you’ve done that’s caused harm to yourself or others. The point of the inventory is to give the addict a sense of scale and responsibility, underlining the effects of their actions as they work to survive one day at a time. A real inventory of the kind practiced by AA is almost never performed by someone not in the program for the simple reason that it can crack you open: becoming aware in a raw, skin-scraped way of your own presence and impact can have a freezing effect. It’s incredibly hard to do, and as such, it’s incredibly hard to recreate in an artistic medium. If the two most difficult acts to portray honestly on film are sex and prayer, then surely representing the pitfall into one’s own psyche is a close third.

All of which is helps explain what makes 1988’s Clean and Sober so moving. It’s a searing, frenetic portrayal of addiction and self-deception, and it features some of the most haunting and honest moments of addictive reckoning ever put on film. There are no easy answers here, and director Glenn Gordon Caron favors prickly, uncertain exchanges to overt sentimentality. The film’s overlooked somewhat these days, though, because it was a victim of timing, swallowed up by its star’s own success. Clean and Sober was Michael Keaton’s first dramatic lead after a series of comic performances (and a brief stint in stand-up comedy before that), and as such, the opportunity to prove himself was his to lose. Yet it was released six months after Beetlejuice and less than a year before Batman, a one-two punch that catapulted Keaton to another level of fame that brought with it higher profile roles. As a result, something as small and risky as Clean and Sober became not just forgotten, but the kind of role Keaton didn’t have a chance to play again for a while. The divisiveness of the reactions to it aside, there’s no denying the hunger and heat he brought to last year’s Birdman. It was like he traveled to 2014 from thirty years in the past (which, in a way, he did.) His work in Clean and Sober is perfectly pitched: edgy, coiled, a portrait of a man barely keeping it together. It’s some of the best work he’s ever done.

Keaton plays Daryl, a drug addict and alcoholic who loses tens of thousands of dollars in embezzlement and substance pursuits. He winds up giving coke to a young woman who has a heart attack in his apartment, and his subsequent legal troubles spur him to find a place to hole up. His idea is queasily smart: he decides to enroll in a one-month rehab program at a treatment house and steer clear of any trouble that might be headed his way from his employers or the law. His duplicity puts him at odds with some of the other patients, and it brings him into direct and repeated confrontation with Craig (Morgan Freeman), a counselor at the clinic. Daryl’s game at the start is to hustle Craig and put on a face of contrition while also looking for regular exits — days off, phone access, anything — that will allow him to try and get his hands on more cash and drugs.

Keaton walks a knife edge with his performance. Too antic, and it would be off-putting; too self-pitying, and he starts to seem merely pathetic. He’s cocky enough to hit on women but self-aware enough to never get angry when they (all) blow him off. Most impressively, he has to move convincingly through his own despair until, gradually, he starts to want to change his life and behavior. Every actor is, of course, playing off a script’s beats, but the trick is to make those beats feel organically achieved, and Keaton does that at every step here. Before he can start recovery, though, he has to bottom out. And in the film’s early going, we see him approach that bottom in a grim, uncomfortable scene powered almost entirely by Keaton alone.

Frustrated by the strictures of the program, Daryl packs his bag one night not long after coming to the treatment house and goes back to his office. He’s looking for any drugs or cash he might’ve left behind, and he ransacks his own desk and a number of others looking for it. His explosion catches the attention of the cleaning woman, who locks eyes with him and quietly backs away. He’s momentarily stunned, ashamed, but he has one more thing to do before he leaves: he has a phone call to make.

It’s a marvel of a scene. With no one to play off, Keaton’s on a high wire. Daryl’s brought low by the fact that he has to beg his mother for money, but the timbre in his voice makes it clear this isn’t the first time he’s had to ask this favor. And even though he’s clearly planned what to say on the call — he starts off saying he’s fine, before sheepishly admitting to a “cash crunch,” then suggesting his parents take out a second mortgage — he wrestles with himself at every stage. He’s not happy to be doing this, of course, and he doesn’t even look like he’s trying to grit his teeth and get through it. Rather, he acts aware, at every stage, of how far he’s fallen, and how he’s abusing once again one of the few relationships in his life. This isn’t even the first time this has happened, we gather; the small but revealing phrase “a little advance” makes it sound like Daryl asks for these loans all the time, or maybe even receives regular deposits from his parents. Keaton’s small gestures here are everything, from the way he scratches at the surface of his desk, to the way he’ll open his mouth and try to swallow after saying a line, to the way he’ll stand up and run his hand quickly through his hair only to collapse back into his chair a moment later. Right after he asks his mother for a specific sum, there’s a quick tightening and release of his jaw muscle. It’s such a small thing, but it’s the kind of small thing that does big work. The scene runs about three and a half minutes, but time feels suspended as it unfolds. Keaton doesn’t try to protect himself, either. Daryl is falling down the mountain and hitting every rock along the way. There is no grace or humor here, no safety net, no way to maintain even the semblance of dignity. It’s a man at his lowest.

The scene is perfectly assembled by Caron and editor Richard Chew, too. Caron never takes the camera off Keaton until the call’s over, but it’s not an unbroken shot. There are actually nine cuts in it, each one deftly reframing the action as Daryl alternately stands, sits, or leans his head down close to the desk to manage his own embarrassment. Yet these cuts are almost invisible thanks to the way they track with the natural rhythms of Keaton’s monologue and movement. An unbroken take would likely be more noticeable and could, in its way, detract from the moment at hand. Instead, we get a nimble, smartly directed scene that knows to put the focus on the performance, not the filmmaking or technology bringing the performance to life. Instead of saying “Look what I can do!”, the scene just pulls you in.

Each edit also matches an emotional turning point in the scene. It starts with a wide shot of Daryl behind his desk that gradually pushes in, tightening the screw. This is the position the view retreats to when Daryl’s feeling rebuffed or alienated. Whenever the frame cuts to a tighter shot — either a close-up of Daryl or a medium that holds him in between — Daryl is taking action or offering another desperate plea. We cut close when he’s trying to get help, we cut back out when he’s on the ropes. It never falters:

Wide shot: Daryl’s sitting at his desk, thinking about what’s next, bracing himself for it.
Close up: He’s taking action by dialing the phone.
Wide shot: Daryl’s standing at his desk, fidgeting with odds and ends, making small talk with his mom. He’s waiting for the right moment.
Close up: Seated now, Daryl says he’s in a “cash crunch” and asks if he can get “a little advance” from his parents. This is his first request, and the dam that has to break before he can make any more.
Wide shot: Daryl stands again, rebuffed by his mother, saying he knows it’s a lot of money. But that leads to his next attempt.
Close up: Daryl’s next action is to suggest his parents take out a second mortgage. This doesn’t work, either.
Medium shot: Daryl sits, rocked back a little but not out yet.
Close up: Daryl’s third request is to ask about his parents’ will, and to see if he can make an early claim on anything that would be left to him after they die.
Medium shot: Daryl stands and tries to pitch his mom on the benefits of giving him an early inheritance, but it’s not convincing, and he eventually sits back down.
Close up: Daryl’s final attempt at finding help is asking to speak to his father. He asks twice, and then the line goes dead.

This is where the shot stays when the call ends: tight on Daryl as he reckons with the knowledge that his last real lifeline is gone. We’ve moved from a broad to an intimate view over the course of the call, ebbing and flowing as the stakes shift, but ultimately staying in close with Daryl at the end. This is right where Caron wants us — locked in, stranded, wondering how to get out.

There’s a real emotional risk on display in the phone call scene that’s representative of Clean and Sober as a whole. Keaton knows he has something to prove, and maybe Caron did, too: the director was best known at the time for creating Moonlighting, which had premiered three years earlier, and his debut feature film is about as far from that show as you can get. It’s always difficult (and often chancy) to guess at motives like that. Maybe it’s better to say the film plays like something someone would make on a dare, or as a personal challenge. It’s a beautiful, engaging, stirring film, a minor masterpiece in its way, and its commitment to dealing with the effects of addiction and the daily crawl toward recovery is something rarely seen on film. It’s about desperation, and redemption, and the very real possibility of failure. It is searching and fearless.