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

By Yasmina Tawil

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A searching and fearless moral inventory. Thats the phrase laid down by Bill W. in the part of AAs Big Book that outlines the twelve steps needed for recovery. Inventorys the fourth step, and it means taking an account of everything youve done thats 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. Its incredibly hard to do, and as such, its 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 ones own psyche is a close third.

All of which is helps explain what makes 1988s Clean and Sober so moving. Its 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 films overlooked somewhat these days, though, because it was a victim of timing, swallowed up by its stars own success. Clean and Sober was Michael Keatons 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 didnt have a chance to play again for a while. The divisiveness of the reactions to it aside, theres no denying the hunger and heat he brought to last years 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. Its some of the best work hes 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. Daryls 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. Hes 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 scripts 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 films 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. Hes looking for any drugs or cash he mightve 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. Hes momentarily stunned, ashamed, but he has one more thing to do before he leaves: he has a phone call to make.

Its a marvel of a scene. With no one to play off, Keatons on a high wire. Daryls brought low by the fact that he has to beg his mother for money, but the timbre in his voice makes it clear this isnt the first time hes had to ask this favor. And even though hes clearly planned what to say on the call he starts off saying hes fine, before sheepishly admitting to a cash crunch, then suggesting his parents take out a second mortgage he wrestles with himself at every stage. Hes not happy to be doing this, of course, and he doesnt even look like hes trying to grit his teeth and get through it. Rather, he acts aware, at every stage, of how far hes fallen, and how hes abusing once again one of the few relationships in his life. This isnt 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. Keatons small gestures here are everything, from the way he scratches at the surface of his desk, to the way hell open his mouth and try to swallow after saying a line, to the way hell 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, theres a quick tightening and release of his jaw muscle. Its such a small thing, but its 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 doesnt 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. Its 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 calls over, but its 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 Keatons 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 Daryls 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 hes trying to get help, we cut back out when hes on the ropes. It never falters:

Wide shot: Daryls sitting at his desk, thinking about whats next, bracing himself for it.
Close up: Hes taking action by dialing the phone.
Wide shot: Daryls standing at his desk, fidgeting with odds and ends, making small talk with his mom. Hes waiting for the right moment.
Close up: Seated now, Daryl says hes 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 its a lot of money. But that leads to his next attempt.
Close up: Daryls next action is to suggest his parents take out a second mortgage. This doesnt work, either.
Medium shot: Daryl sits, rocked back a little but not out yet.
Close up: Daryls 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 its not convincing, and he eventually sits back down.
Close up: Daryls 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. Weve 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.

Theres a real emotional risk on display in the phone call scene thats 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. Its always difficult (and often chancy) to guess at motives like that. Maybe its better to say the film plays like something someone would make on a dare, or as a personal challenge. Its 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. Its about desperation, and redemption, and the very real possibility of failure. It is searching and fearless.