Keep Coming Back: The World’s End and Recovery
“This is a film about a man who escapes therapy but triggers his own intervention.” – Edgar Wright, speaking with Calum Marsh about his most recent film, The World’s End.
The World’s End grows in the same field as A Clockwork Orange and John Wyndham. It’s a serious work of socially conscious science fiction masquerading as a jolly British comedy – capable of inspiring belly laughter in one shot and existential terror in the next. Gary King is our hero, but he’s spinning out of control and into a self-destructive crisis. He cuts his wrists and drives while he’s fucked up and encourages his friends to join him in damaging behaviors. If The World’s End were not directed by Edgar Wright, one of the 2 or 3 greatest living directors of comedy, it would be a nightmare vision closer to Mike Leigh’s Naked.
Forget for a moment how funny this movie is and consider how seriously it takes itself. It is the work of experienced craftsmen – Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s screenplay doesn’t waste a word. Wright’s camera work is energetic, but mostly feels deliberate and controlled. Every prop and gag, no matter how insignificant, functions as a part of the carefully managed universe that is Newton-Haven. Out of Order signs and driver’s license marks are repurposed, creating a pointillist comedy that ultimately seems peripheral to the true aims of the filmmakers, which are twofold: 1) documenting the strange and terrifying realization that your hometown, which has always meant a great deal to you, can’t remember you at all and will continue to change and forget you ever existed; and 2) attempting to capture the experience of an addict/alcoholic’s crisis and recovery.
I think The World’s End manages to express the first metaphor perfectly in a stunning and hilarious second act. But I’d like to challenge the film’s presentation and development of Gary’s substance abuse. Respectably, The World’s End attempts to use addiction as more than a generic character detail and deserves some scrutiny. The Returning Home metaphor provides much of the film’s memorable moments – pub wars and synchronized marching to The Doors – but Gary’s addiction is the true structural core of the film. It is central to the three most important dramatic moments in the picture – the long opening monologue, the first appearance of the Blanks, and the events at The World’s End pub. His issues with addiction are vital to the film’s architecture, but I’m gonna be a buzzkill and say that the triumphal ending isn’t as dry as it wants to be.
The film begins and we are introduced to Gary through voiceover, as he leads us through the events of his Greatest Night Ever, an epic pub-crawl named The Golden Mile – 12 pubs and 12 pints. You can hear his excitement. We don’t know if the flashback images, flickering in brief, aged tones, are true documents or the fabric of Gary’s ballooned ego. We immediately learn that he is an asshole, that he is reckless, that he is cocky, and that he is charismatic. Edgar Wright dishes out character detail more efficiently than anyone.
But we eventually learn that Gary is telling this story, or, more accurately, “sharing” this story with an Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. Suddenly the “12 pubs – 12 pints” goal makes sense – referencing the 12-step path to recovery. It’s an effective gag, but the reveal is incredibly dark. Not only is Gary reckless, cocky, and an asshole, he is pathetic and clueless. Impressively, Wright sets up the entire ethos of his film in a single cut. But it unfortunately includes the film’s confused attitude towards substance abuse and recovery. The circle of Alcoholics Anonymous is presented as the supreme bummer. No one offers a helpful response or takes Gary’s inventory. Popular culture has traditionally condescended to the fellowship of AA and it’s hard to fault Wright and Pegg for it. They make it believable enough that Gary is doomed from the start – he’s in the room, but he’s not ready to recover. Indeed, a film about Gary and a crocodilian, septuagenarian, croaking sponsor would be something else entirely. But as we will see, the ideology of 12-step programs and substance abuse recovery becomes critical in the third act.
Each of the film’s three acts begins with Gary experiencing a crisis that is directly related to his substance abuse. While the first began with an AA circle, the second begins with a different fellowship – his four childhood friends sitting in the Cross Hands, their fourth pub of the night. If these pubs are each meant to correspond with a step in recovery, the fourth order of business is to create a Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory of Oneself, so it’s as good a point as any to stage the first of two major interventions and plunge the movie into a riotous second act. I love the way that Wright negotiates the introduction of new genre elements – pulling the trigger just when the narrative seems ready to self-destruct. Gary’s visit to the bathroom is a defensive gesture, his mates having just called him out on his addiction. Andy, clearly the one that Gary values the most, observes that they aren’t his friends, just his enablers. Gary deflects by saying “enabler” is a funny word. He continues to rationalize his substance abuse by lying about his mother’s death and alleging that his friends are jealous of his “freedom,” in one of many moments where Gary’s personal philosophy takes the form of recently-heard song lyrics. This is where Gary goes to the bathroom and the boys discover Newton-Haven’s secret in what is surely one of the best scenes of the year, action or otherwise.
Before I can continue, we need to talk about Andy. Nick Frost’s Andrew Knightley is the emotional core of the film. We hope that he can get through to Gary and we sympathize with his foolish devotion to him. Until the events at the Cross Hands, Andy has been the perfect adult – professional and mature. We learn that he has been sober for an impressive 16 years. In the first pub, he orders a glass of water, which, to Gary, is the most disappointing decision anyone could make. Andy makes an honorable statement about how ordering water at a pub takes more balls than ordering alcohol, but Gary doesn’t want to hear it. The film condescends to his decision as well – photographing the exhilarating crack and fizz of four poured beers juxtaposed against the limp drip of tap water. But after their epic Rumble in the Washroom, the fellas wonder what to do next. Gary unsurprisingly suggests they continue their crawl. All the others want to hop in a car and get away. The moment one of them points out that Andy is fit to drive because he’s a grownup and not currently halfway tanked, Andy gulps down five shots like it’s Popeye’s spinach. His relapse, after 16 years of sobriety, is not only unmotivated, it only comes about because the narrative requires them not to drive away. I’ll admit that there’s a certain Badass Factor at play here, but Andy has already revealed exceptional robot-bashing skills without lubrication — People’s Elbow and all. So, suddenly, the film seems to argue that heavy drinking is at once the great flaw of our hero and a fuel for victory. To take a line straight from Andy’s mouth – wouldn’t it take more balls to walk into a bar full of hostile robots and beat the shit out of them without liquid courage?
The impact of Andy’s relapse is mostly superficial during the excellent series of battles and adventures that make up the second act. But when it’s time for him to seriously confront Gary in yet another intervention, it’s as though he never even stepped off the wagon. In the final pub, the two of them have a tearful, desperate argument about whether or not Gary has more to live for than the Drink. Problem is, the words of wisdom are coming out of a mouth that just swallowed at least 8 drinks after 16 years of abstention. The World’s End takes place in a universe where certain genre elements alleviate some responsibility towards realism, but the filmmakers rely on the audience to have an emotional reaction to Gary’s alcoholism. In this moment, we do. But after Gary pulls the tap and triggers the elevator to humanity’s rock bottom, the film loses control of recovery as a theme.
Bill Nighy’s blinding, sarcastic God wastes no time in offering Gary exactly what he spent the entire film wanting – eternal youth. The opportunity to live forever inside of his own legend. To an addicted mind, this is the holy grail – no more tomorrows, no more hangovers, no more wondering what you’ll have to steal to trade for dope. But somehow, Gary denies it, ripping off his younger self’s head and punting it across the room. On the surface, it’s Gary’s final turning point – his moment of clarity. But look at it again. Isn’t it just an extension – an intensification – of his addictive personality? Faced with an authority figure, his instinct is to challenge it. Steps two and three are notoriously hard for recovering addicts because they require finding and trusting a higher power. In this final confrontation, Gary King literally stands on top of a table and defies what appears to be some kind of god offering guidance. It bellows, “You act out the same cycles of self-destruction again and again! You are the least civilized planet in the entire galaxy!” Gary screams back, now with Andy on his side, “It is our basic human right to be fuck ups!” Eventually, Bill Nighy’s disembodied voice gives up and leaves, admitting that nothing he can say will change their minds.
I’ll admit that I can identify with Mr. Nighy’s voice. In a situation where alcoholics are yelling about their god-given right to make their own decisions, it’s best to make an exit. Sure, the antagonist was defeated, but none of Gary’s personality issues were solved – his drinking, his ego, his need for control. In the final scene, Gary’s a legend – a portrait of the addicted ego. His face is shaved and he looks healthy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he chases that water with something from a flask hidden inside his coat.