Dopesick Reaches Back to Try to Tell a New Story

I never need to see Citizen Kane again. After teaching it for 20+ years, I’m done. I first saw Citizen Kane in 1991. It was, of course, number one on the American Film Institute's (AFI) top movie list and as a film enthusiast I thought it was important to see it and find out why. I sat down with a friend and she angrily exclaimed at the end of the film that it was probably the worst thing she'd ever seen. I, however, needed to see it again. So there was something about this film that divided peoples’ opinions. I came to the film with the endorsement of the AFI. She came to it on a whim. Expectations play a huge role in one’s perception of this film. It is an emotional film? No. I feel it’s a purely intellectual film. Another viewing of the film would not add to my understanding.

Despite voluminous writings regarding this film, I have rarely seen anyone talk about the emotional connection to the characters. I think it’s impossible to be emotionally connected to its characters. Similarly, I think most of the characters in the movie itself find it impossible to feel deep emotional attachment to Kane. Let there be no doubt. It is a technical marvel. The film rewrote the language of film. It is still the touchstone of movie making.

But, it is a filmmaker’s film. Is it a film for modern audiences? Can modern filmmakers still borrow from it? Yes, they still do.

Orson Welles pushed writer Howard Mankowitz to complete the fictionalized story of the broken-hearted, emotionally stunted, impossibly rich media magnate William Randolph Hearst and turned it into a cinematic storytelling tour-de-force. The film Citizen Kane infamously starts at the end, with the death of its protagonist. The opening tone is that of a horror film, with its foreboding scenery, creepy music and film noir lighting. It looks like a creature-feature. Subsequently, the fragmentation and incredible compositions of layered images on the screen add to the aspect of horror. A composite shot dissolving from a snow covered chalet to the lips of the dying man is intentionally disorienting.

A gloomy, ominous mansion is foregrounded by a cage of monkeys
Still from Citizen Kane's opening montage

This opening montage sequence clearly shows the hand-of-the-director. If you have any understanding of film-language, the time, scene and tone are being heavily manipulated. Basically… You cannot trust this film. If you do not understand film language or have too much trust in a director you will find the film unsettling or possibly befuddling. If this film was a bus it would have no seats or handrails. You are completely at the mercy of the driver.

Within the first five minutes the film has gone through two massive tone shifts and then is in the midst of a documentary. The exposition is delivered to us via newsreel, an early form of visual news that you would encounter at the movie theater before the 1950s and the invasion of television into the American home. But, just when you think that you've got your footing, this bus takes another radical turn and pulls back from the documentary to show the people making the documentary. It’s a jarring break of the 4th wall as we see the shadowy producers digging deeper for the story of this larger-than-life character named Charles Foster Kane. This journalistic drive to get to the root of his final word “Rosebud” propels the movie and the audience now begins to piece his mysterious life and even more mysterious death together with mental suturing.

In 1942, starting a movie with the death of the main character was an incredibly bold choice. Taken to extremes by directors like Christopher Nolan and his film Memento, this disorienting storytelling style can be incredibly effective on an intellectual level but often falls short emotionally. In films like this, (and honestly, all of Nolan’s work) I believe audiences are much more engaged in trying to figure out exactly what's going on with the storytelling and have very little time for the emotional connection.

Let’s flash forward to the 2021 Hulu original series Dopesick. It is an eight part movie that uses parallel development to tell an intertwining story of attorneys, investigators, a family-run drug cartel, and Oxycontin’s effect on the inhabitants of an Appalachian coal mining town and beyond.

A promotional poster for Hulu's Dopesick
Hulu's Dopesick

Dopesick’s opening episode gives us a fly on the wall perspective in a courtroom as a couple played by Rosario Dawson and Raul Esparza hug each other goodbye at the dissolution of their marriage. Who are they? Why should we care? It’s a choice echoing Citizen Kane but after sitting through eight hours of this narrative I can confidently say it was absolutely the wrong choice. The key difference between the two films is that Charles Foster Kane’s death is the singular premise of the film, not necessarily just one element of 6 intertwining stories. Is the divorce the crux of Dopesick? Is it why the audience has tuned in? Do the filmmakers even give it the screentime to flesh itself out? Definitely not. In Citizen Kane, when the audience finds out what the nature of “Rosebud” is, it's really just a starting point for piecing it all together. Merely another piece of the puzzle of Kane’s life. The point of Citizen Kane is to watch the context of his life fall into place. The massive spiral that we're on as we experience Citizen Kane allows us to grab elements and pull them into a linear timeline to make sense of it all. Dopesick on the other hand uses a clever scrolling series of dates on the screen to show exactly where we're jumping to in time. In Citizen Kane this flashback and forward cut-up storytelling is part of the fun. I can't agree that telling the Dopesick story out of chronological order was any more effective than simply telling it chronologically.

Dopesick is intensely emotional.

The composite characters like Michael Keaton’s Dr. Fennix and his injured patient, the young female coal miner Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever) are gripping and human. The divorce coming before the lovestory is a very strange choice in this case. In the last episode of Dopesick we are left with no closure on the relationship between Bridget and Paul unless you have a photographic memory of the opening moments of the series when we have yet gained any emotional attachment to the characters we’re about to spend over 8 hours with.

As a side note I want to mention that the overall ambition and structure of Dopesick is reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s 2000 film Traffic with its interweaving storylines and cinematic color palette. That film moves chronologically and feels slightly more cohesive and is certainly more compact at a total runtime of 2 hours and 27 minutes.

Sadly, the entire final episode of Dopesick feels completely rushed like the Game of Thrones final episode. I was fearful moving into the 8th episode this would be the case. As I watched the episode I looked at the countdown of time remaining and knew we were going to be seeing some serious narrative compression. Scenes that should have been acted out were simply mentioned by the characters. They threw papers down on the desk which replaced several minutes of critical storytelling. Scenes which would have been supremely cathartic were completely missing.

Dopesick’s crowning achievement is in telling a compelling emotional story of the impact of the drug company’s lies on the lives of ordinary people- people and doctors who did not see this crisis coming and did not have any defense against it.

In many ways the assembly of Dopesick felt like it tried too hard to make this rather straightforward police-procedural story mysterious. It was a mixed bag in my estimation. I don't necessarily think telling the story out of chronological order made much of a difference to an audience in 2021 that already binges police procedurals and murder mysteries like popcorn. In 1942 Dopesick would have certainly blown minds for its choices. But, in 2021 it made the mistake of thinking it was Citizen Kane and as we know… I don’t need to see it again.


Clinical instructor Gregory Golda has been teaching at Sacred heart University since 1999. His master's degree in art education from Penn State and another in broadcast journalism from Sacred heart University. He teaches history theory classes as well as production. He is the owner and designer of Construkt Media Studios, a multimedia production company specializing in audio and video production as well as graphic web and theater design. He is also a husband, dad, musician, producer, sculptor and dog lover.

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