Why Drinking To Oblivion might be the best documentary Louis Theroux has ever produced
From his frantic early days mugging at swingers’ parties and interviewing disgraced celebrities to his critical and commercial breakthrough chronicling the Westboro Baptist Church and the American prison system, Louis Theroux’s career has been defined by compassion and intrigue. His subjects are always interesting, often unpleasant, and rarely easy to understand. After his stint in America covering hugely controversial topics, Theroux has returned to his home soil with an intimate, grimly fascinating documentary about the alcoholics slowly wasting away in King’s College Hospital. While an upsetting and difficult watch, Louis Theroux: Drinking To Oblivion might also be the great documentary Theroux has ever produced.
Theroux has never been quite as involved with his subjects as in Drinking To Oblivion. He’s there for every high and low; from the highs of South African Peter and his long-suffering girlfriend moving into a new flat to the crushing lows of out-of-control Joe ignoring Louis’ advice and staggering away from the hospital to buy vodka. Drinking To Oblivion is a moving film but its sadness doesn’t come from lurid shots of the dangers of alcoholism. Instead, Theroux focuses on the people.
All the addicts featured in the film have one thing in common; they are all perfectly decent, perfectly normal people whose lives have been a downward spiral. Joe’s story is especially affecting because throughout the documentary, he appears to be living on a rollercoaster; we first meet him as a drunken, sickly mess before seeing the charming, witty man who can put down the bottle, before watching him relapse once more.
Aurelie’s story is perhaps even more depressingly poignant. She’s drank since she was 15 and spends her days buying cheap cider and hanging around with her “boyfriend”, an absolutely despicable human being who relentlessly mocks and insults her (prompting Louis to get genuinely angry, which might be a first) before shouting at the production crew to take his microphone off. In a chilling scene, she reveals to Louis and a doctor that she’s well aware it’s going to kill her, resigned to her fate and unable to see any other option.
Louis Theroux has always been front and centre of his documentaries, but unlike his more flippant early documentaries, it never feels like a bid at stardom in the egotistical manner of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. Previously, he’s felt like the lone human on a planet of aliens, curiously observing the lives of the counter culture (whether that be the skinny man in a wrestling ring or the calm rationalist in a sea of bigots). In Drinking To Oblivion, Theroux acts in a number of roles, whether that be helpless observer, straight talking support worker, or valuable friend. His soft speaking manner and non-judgemental expression makes him a perfect interviewer, encouraging his subjects to open up and talk about where they’ve come from and why they’re here.
One thing that strikes you is the reasons people have turned to drink, difficult times that almost everyone has been through, from loss of parents to break ups. The big question Drinking To Oblivion seems to be asking is: What does it take to make ordinary people feel the need to drink themselves to death? It’s a question that mostly remains unanswered.
Though it’s not quite as jaw-dropping as The Most Hated Family in America or as thoroughly hopeless as Miami Mega Prison, Drinking To Oblivion might be the most humane documentary Louis Theroux has ever produced. Never before has his camera seemed so unflinching as it closes in on desperate, desperately ill people. Never once feeling exploitative or judgemental, the film highlights a sad section of the world rarely shown on television, and allows us a chance to see what a life of alcoholism really looks like. Poignant but not manipulative, depressing but not hopeless, Louis Theroux: Drinking To Oblivion is another masterpiece from the documentarian.
By Harry J. Ford
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