While everyone’s alcoholic bottom is different, there’s no denying that their agony and despair is essentially the same. No matter the details in someone else’s story, I always understand how their life went from Point A to Holy Shit. Every single time in an AA room, I’ll nod as I listen, seeing myself somewhere in their final, midnight-black stretch of addiction. In fact, I’m convinced there are few bonds stronger than the shared memory of circling a drain. I’ll hear about the lifelong connections forged between soldiers in combat and I’ll sometimes think of the people I sit with in church basements and meeting halls the same way.
When the floor finally gave out on my addiction, it didn’t happen overnight. It came after years and years of me ignoring the problem. At the end, much of my life had sagged under the weight of it all, like water-damaged ceiling tiles. I can spot it in other alcoholics near their ends, too: the full burden of alcoholic chaos bearing down on them. And that’s what makes movies and TV shows that feature alcoholic bottoms so deeply affecting for me. When a scene gets it wrong or hits a wrong note, it doesn’t just ring hollow to me. It’s insulting. More than that, I’m upset by what it didn’t capture. But when a scene gets it right, when it manages to articulate all the anguish and anxiety and reckoning of a genuinely alcoholic bottom, it can do something far greater than just hit some screenwriter’s plot points. They can steer the sick and suffering from similar fates. Movies and TV shows can be stronger than fiction for alcoholics approaching the end—they provide a glimpse at what a bottom looks like so they may never have to discover just how deep their own is.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
While Marc Maron’s IFC sitcom fictionalized the comedian’s life, it wasn’t afraid to go into some dark places, including several moments that found him re-enacting painful, real-life moments with his ex-wife. It was the show’s fourth season, though, that upended the show’s comedic tone. Thanks to a relapse on Oxycontin and booze, Maron loses everything: his podcast, his audience, his career. Everything in his life is hanging like a door on just one hinge. In the season premiere, we meet Maron at a scraggly, bearded bottom, where he’s living in a cramped storage space. What follows is a season-long fight back to sobriety from this very moment. For a show dedicated to showing someone constantly at odds with himself, it’s startling to see that in previous seasons, he was actually at home not being at home with himself. The fact that the real-life Maron puts himself through it all means that it’s not that far outside possibility, either.
Tell me there’s no finer example of an alcoholic bottom than Jack Nicholson’s unshaven, unhinged writer Jack Torrance at the bar. His bottom doesn’t involve going fully insane, swinging an axe into the bathroom door. No, it’s this sequence. Sure, he’s boozing with ghosts, but that’s because he’s becoming one in the story of his own alcoholism. That’s how I felt at my alcoholic worst: I was fading from one reality, turning my back on everything and everyone, and visiting one only I could see.
We meet Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in a shitbox hotel room—a haunting portrait of a rail-thin solider drowning in booze and tortured by his own demons. It’s also well-documented that Sheen was genuinely drunk in the scene, fighting his own real-life battle with the bottle while bottoming out on screen. You can actually see it in his black eyes: the collapse, the vacancy, the distance. He staggers, sobs, shatters a mirror with his hand, and collapses. It’s disturbing on several levels, but it’s also a bold way to introduce the film’s main character: a flawed, lost, and beautifully broken man, right before he’s sent upriver to confront the horrors of humanity.
House of Sand and Fog
When recovering addict Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is forced out of her family home through a series of legal misunderstandings, it’s an event that jaggedly cuts through everyone associated with the home—including the new owners. Eventually, it leads to her bottoming out in the driveway of her former home, agonized by the memory of a life lived inside it—not to mention all the new memories being forged by its owners. She tries to commit suicide with a stolen weapon and then, shortly after, pills. Harrowing and heartbreaking by equal measure, it’s a moment that underscores the devastating shadow of memory and addiction throughout the film.
This underrated, bleary-eyed 2012 drama, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul as an alcoholic married couple, somehow manages to put the alcoholic bottom at the very beginning of the film. While Smashed’s protagonist fumbles her way to recovery, finding herself along the way, it takes her to drink, smoke crack, urinate on a store floor before shoplifting a bottle of wine, and pass out in a vacant lot to kickstart her journey.
The beloved 1994 Best Picture winner starring Tom Hanks hasn’t aged well. Some of the CGI, once jaw-dropping, now appears rubbery and second-rate. Still, it’s equally jaw-dropping to think of how many people still regard Forrest Gump as something of a family classic. Maybe people’s memories are gauzed with time, but it’s certainly not remembered for the fact its meandering main character repeatedly encounters a villain every bit as selfish and ruthless as Khan or Hans Gruber: Jenny. That’s right: Forrest’s childhood friend, Jenny Curran, is a supervillain who doesn’t just manipulate, drug, drink, and force her way through life. She’s a wrecking ball who bottoms out on the ledge of a Los Angeles apartment complex, terrifying herself into a moment of clarity.
Not every alcoholic bottom is spectacularly messy or undeniably gut-wrenching. There’s a quiet moment near the end of this 2003 Alexander Payne film where wine connoisseur/failed writer Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) sits alone in a fast-food restaurant, joylessly drinking a bottle of wine he’s saved for years from a disposable plastic cup. It’s a simple, note-perfect scene that says everything The Shining takes an entire movie to say: alcohol will ultimately betray you, leaving you alone and adrift.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
It’s no coincidence that two horror movies make this list. It’s also notable that no boogeyman can compete with the white-knuckle terror of alcoholism. Given the vast number of sequels that have since diluted the original’s impact, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is way more compelling and visceral than most people remember. Beyond Freddy Krueger, there’s a genuinely frightening alcoholic bottom at the heart of this movie. Nancy’s mom drinks herself into oblivion and, at the end, the audience is confused by whether she’s done herself in by drinking (letting Freddy kill her) or not. The scene shifts the sands on what’s real and what’s not—a feeling that alcoholics are all too familiar with.
HBO’s The Wire is routinely included in lists about the greatest television series of all time. And for good reason: it’s as layered, complex, and ambiguous as life in the city itself. There are no neat, tidy plots or black-and-white motivations. The Wire never take sides in its unflinching examination of a Baltimore rocked by political corruption, moral corrosion, economic blight and, yes, addiction. And yet, it’s also never uncertain or wavering in its portrait of Detective McNulty, whose drinking problem ultimately costs him everything. Throughout the show, while the city around him continues to change, he’s on a trajectory that inevitably leads him straight to this moment where he becomes what he’s always feared he’d become.
Leave it to the director of Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis) to invert not only a jetliner, but the audience’s expectations of what the film is actually about. Instead of an aerial drama, it’s very much a homebound exploration of alcoholism and addiction. Denzel Washington’s William “Whip” Whitaker is also deceptively complex (and deceptive)—an addict pilot whose heroism saves 90% of the passengers. His bottom doesn’t come during his relapse in a hotel room—it comes slightly earlier in the film, when he’s found relative peace and comfort with fellow addict Kelly. While she’s trying to remain sober, he’s splayed out on the couch—content and confident in the way that all drunks are. He warmed his hands on her sobriety long enough to get into her life, becoming something of a parasite. The plane crash may be long over, but he continues leaving a path of destruction everywhere he goes.