Anson Mount is currently heading up the Western drama Hell On Wheels, but a different AMC series inevitably comes to mind when watching Mount in Cook County, David Pomes’ directorial debut. Mount plays a psychotic mess of a man overseeing a crumbling East Texas house populated by his teenage nephew (Ryan Donowho), his 6-year-old daughter (Makenna Fitzsimmons), his aging father (Tommy Townsend), a pile of hangers-on, and a meth lab that tends to catch fire when whoever’s using it gets distracted. Since everyone’s high all the time, that happens often.
With his neck tattoo, wild eyes, scruff of beard, and wiry physique, Mount makes a convincing addict, and the film presents a vertiginous look at the warped day-to-day of a place in which everything revolves around doing drugs, making drugs, or getting the supplies for drugs. The blond, angel-faced Fitzsimmons plays in the woods and around the house, oblivious to the cesspool in which she’s being raised, while Donowho struggles with the impossible task of sheltering her while fighting his own nascent habit. The return of his dad (Xander Berkeley) from a stint in prison kicks off the film’s minimal plot— Berkeley is clean and talks about wanting to help his kids, but immediately gets involved in cooking and dealing, to his son’s disgust.
Cook County won an audience award at SXSW three years ago, but it’s the opposite of a crowd-pleaser, reveling in the ugliness of the world it explores in a way that’s sometimes uncomfortable, particularly since its primary tension depends on child endangerment. Mount’s character shoulders the most monstrous behavior, some of it so extreme, it’s almost parodic; his desire to get his brother to rejoin him in addiction for the companionship makes sense, but why he keeps sneakily trying to get his daughter to smoke with him doesn’t, so it seems to be there simply for the shock value.
With its characters always covered in a film of grease and sweat, talking through mile-a-minute meth-fueled conversations or passed out on decrepit couches, Cook County is an evocative portrait of the drug blight that’s infected swaths of our country, but not only does it not get beyond that, its almost-gleeful horrorshow quality comes with the tinge of exploitation. Misery begets more misery, but to what end?