Review: ‘The Dark Divide,’ starring David Cross and Debra Messing

September 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Cross in “The Dark Divide” (Photo courtesy of Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios)

“The Dark Divide”

Directed by Tom Putnam

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1995, primarily in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state, the drama “The Dark Divide” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Native Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies and moths) defies the expectations of skeptics by going on a scientific exploration that involves camping outdoors for several weeks by himself in a remote forest area.  

Culture Audience: “The Dark Divide” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about camping, hiking and dealing with the death of a loved one.

David Cross and Debra Messing in “The Dark Divide” (Photo courtesy of Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios)

The first scene of the entertaining and occasionally emotionally moving drama “The Dark Divide” is of lepidopterist Dr. Robert “Bob” Pyle (played by David Cross) running in fear somewhere in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state. Is he running for his life? Is he being chased by Bigfoot, the creature that’s alluded to throughout the movie? The answer comes in the last third of the film.

But before then, “The Dark Divide” (written and directed by Tom Putnam) takes a compelling and sometimes meandering journey with a character who goes on this getaway trip to look for butterflies and moths, but he’s really looking for a way to process his grief over the death of his wife, who was a naturalist and artist. “The Dark Divide” is inspired by the real-life experiences of Bob Pyle, whose wife Thea died of cancer in 2013. Pyle authored the 1995 book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.”

In the movie, which takes place in 1995, Bob’s wife Thea (played by Debra Messing) dies about halfway through the film (this is not spoiler information, since her death is the catalyst for Bob taking this fateful trip), after she had a long battle with cancer. The movie isn’t in chronological order, but it’s easy to figure out the order in which things happened. The first third of the movie shows Bob and Thea’s home life. They don’t know it yet but it will be the last year of Thea’s life.

Thea (who has been going through chemotherapy) and Bob try to have as normal as an existence as possible. They attend a cocktail party that has several of Bob’s scientist colleagues who are also in attendance. As a lepidopterist, Bob is interested in trying to save the endangered species of butterflies and moths that he studies. At the party, Bob tells two of his male colleagues—Professor Trimble (played by Shelly Lipkin) and Professor Keasey (played by Tony Doupe)—that he’s thinking about going to Gifford Pinchot National Forest to find any of these endangered species.

“Unless we catalogue all the species there, how do we know if the numbers are dwindling?” Bob asks the colleagues. The colleagues agree, but they react with skepticism that Bob is qualified to do this kind of field work by himself. They ask him what his experience is with camping, and he admit it’s minimal and that he hasn’t really gone camping since he was a child. And he’s never done any training on how to survive in a remote, outdoor area.

Meanwhile, back at home, Thea and Bob have moments of despair about her cancer. Bob can only comfort Thea when he does heartbreaking things like help her in the bathroom when she vomits or when he accompanies her to doctor appointments for her cancer treatment. Thea is generally more accepting of her cancer diagnosis than Bob seems to be. She makes it clear to Bob and anyone else that she doesn’t want their pity.

One day, Bob is working on his front-door porch with his typewriter, and all he can type is the word “cancer.” Thea notices Bob is in a mopey mood and she says to him, “Bob, why don’t you dial back on being miserable?” He replies, “I’m sorry but my wife is …” He can’t finish saying the words he wants to say, so Thea finishes the sentence with what she wants to say: “Alive.”

Thea tells Bob to “go with your girlfriend Marcia to look for specimens, scribble down that poetry you keep threatening to write, and just get away from me for a while.” (Marcia is the nickname for Bob’s butterfly net.) Bob takes her advice, but while out camping, he soon finds out that his colleagues were right: He doesn’t know much about survival in the outdoors.

When some Girl Scouts walk past his campsite, one of the girls tells Bob how he stored his food in the wrong way. He needed to use branches to hang the food so that bears couldn’t get to it. You know you’re ill-equipped to be go camping in the woods when a Girl Scout knows more than you do. Later, Bob nearly falls down a cliff while trying to catch a butterfly in his net.

Bob and Thea have a loving relationship, and Thea tries to lift his spirits during the cancer ordeal with her dry sense of humor. In one scene, when they are home alone together, Thea says to Bob: “Knock, knock.” Bob replies, “Who’s there?” Thea answers, “Death.”

Bob says, “That’s not funny.” Thea responds, “I’m sorry. It was a little funny.” Bob reluctantly admits that the joke was “a little funny,” and they both have a laugh over it. This tender moment is referenced later in the movie to great emotional effect when Bob has a life-or-death situation and he doesn’t know if he’s going to make it out alive.

After Thea dies, Bob gets a letter in the mail informing him that he’s gotten a Guggenheim grant for $11,000 to study the endangered species at Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The grant is his motivation to go back to the forest. The trip is also his way of honor Thea after she died, since Bob and Thea’s relationship was strengthened by their common passion for nature and animals. (Cross and Messing are very good in their roles as Bob and Thea. The couple’s marriage is the soul of this movie.)

Before he heads into the very remote area of the woods, Bob stops off at a convenience store to buy food and supplies. He sees a newspaper tabloid in the store with a front page story titled “I Was Bigfoot’s Love Slave.” The store clerk named Monty (played by Cameron Esposito) notices Bob glancing at the tabloid story and says, “Tourists go nuts for that crap.”

Bob has a map and asks the clerk for directions on where he needs to go. Monty looks at Bob and tells him that the trail where he wants to go is “no joke” and that Bob doesn’t look very well-equipped to handle the treacherous terrain. The warning doesn’t really scare Bob, who is determined to achieve his goals to look for the specimens that he wants to find.

The rest of the movie shows Bob experiencing a series of mishaps and some strangers during his mostly lonely trip. Some of the strangers are friendlier than others. Some of them (such as a group of construction workers in the forest) are hostile to environmentalists, so Bob is careful about who he tells that he’s very much a pro-conservation person who believes in protecting endangered species as much as possible.

Bigfoot is a possible looming presence in the area. Many of the people who are in the forest believe that Bigfoot exists, while Bob doesn’t believe in Bigfoot or any creature that can’t be scientifically explained or proven. One of the most memorable encounters that Bob has is with a family of hikers, who almost shoot him because they think he might be Bigfoot.

Bob ends up briefly hanging out over a campfire at night with this family, which consists of a middle-aged married couple named Teresa (played by Kimberly Guerrero) and Shayne (played by David Koechner); Teresa’s young-adult son Billy (played by Dyami Thomas) from a previous relationship; and Teresa’s mother Marie (played by Harvest Moon), who was the one who was convinced that Bob could’ve been Bigfoot when the family first saw him in the woods.

Billy and Marie are the two people in the family who are the most convinced that the legend of Bigfoot is true. (Everyone in the family is Native American except for Shayne, who is white.) Over the campfire, Billy says, “When white man gets too greedy, Bigfoot smashes his truck as revenge.”

Not long after Bob amicably parts ways with this family, he sees that a construction work site in the woods has been vandalized. Bob gets falsely accused by some of the workers of causing the damage, but he convinces them he didn’t do it. And in another scene, Bob sees an ape-like footprint that’s twice the size of a man’s footprint. Coincidence?

“The Dark Divide” isn’t really a story about Bigfoot conspiracy theories or legends. Instead, the movie (which has stunning cinematography by Sean Bagley, especially the sweeping aerial views of nature) is often a meditative piece that shows Bob communing with nature and being alone with his thoughts. Because he encounters his own precarious situations on this trip, it gives him a new appreciation of life. People should not expect a fast-paced wilderness adventure story with this quietly effective movie because it’s about facing grief and inner demons instead of any dangerous creatures in the woods.

Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios released “The Dark Divide” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2020. The movie’s VOD release is on November 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics’ starring Sting, Ben Stiller, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Deepak Chopra, A$AP Rocky and Sarah Silverman

May 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rob Corddry in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics”

Directed by Donick Cary

Culture Representation: This documentary interviews a predominantly white male group of entertainers who talk about their experiences taking psychedelic drugs, and the movie features a diverse group of actors doing comedy skits about psychedelic drug experiences.

Culture Clash: Despite these drugs being illegal, almost all of the people interviewed say that they don’t regret taking psychedelic drugs.

Culture Audience: “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” will appeal to people who just want one-sided comedic stories about taking psychedelic drugs, because the movie’s agenda is to exclude any stories about the drugs’ long-term negative effects on health.

Nick Offerman in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In its overexuberance to portray psychedelic drug taking as something that’s harmless or something to laugh about later, the documentary “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” sinks to new lows of exploitation by prominently featuring two celebrities whose tragic, self-destructive deaths are definitely not funny. The documentary’s filmmakers (including director Donick Cary) made the morbid and tacky decision to display the filmmakers’ interviews with Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain in this parade of celebrities who mostly glamorize taking psychedelic drugs.

Fisher died in 2016 of drug-related causes. Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. They both struggled with mental-health issues and drug addiction and admitted to taking a lot of LSD and other psychedelics in their lifetimes. Needless to say, Fisher and Bourdain are definitely not examples of how psychedelic drugs can help people with mental-health problems and drug addictions. And yet, the documentary pushes the scientifically unproven agenda that psychedelic drugs are beneficial to people suffering from drug addiction and mental-health issues.

But hey, why let these tragic deaths get in the way of making a documentary where these now-dead people are shown joking about their acid trips, as if those drug experiences couldn’t possibly be harmful to them? They’re certainly not going to talk about the negative side effects of “bad trips,” such as suicidal thoughts, depression or psychosis. After all, this movie wants people to believe that psychedelics are “shiny, happy drugs,” without giving a thoroughly honest look at the down sides too, because the film is so focused on having people endorse these drugs.

And there’s a reason why the filmmakers only included entertainers in this documentary that glamorizes psychedelic drugs. Imagine a documentary that featured a bunch of health-care workers, emergency responders, schoolteachers or airplane pilots joking about their experiences doing psychedelic drugs, and many of the interviewees giving the impression that they still do psychedelics on a regular basis. It wouldn’t seem so “harmless” then, would it?

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the documentary focuses on people (some more famous than others) who are in showbiz, where illegal drug abuse is flaunted and often celebrated. The average person in a regular job would not be able to get away with bragging in a Netflix documentary about their drug experiences.

Nor does the average person have the kind of money that rock star Sting has, to fly to Mexico whenever he wants, just to take peyote in an elaborate shaman ritual, which he describes in vivid detail in the documentary. Almost all of the people in this film can easily afford to indulge in taking illegal drugs and do not have to worry about how they’re going to pay for any medical treatment or legal issues if things go wrong. It’s one of the reasons why the documentary glamorizes these drug experiences, because there are some negative consequences to illegal drug taking that the “average” person can’t casually dismiss as easily as a well-paid entertainer can.

In addition to Sting, there are several other entertainers in the documentary who talk about their psychedelic drug trips or say that they’ve used psychedelic drugs: Ben Stiller (who’s one of the documentary’s producers), Nick Kroll, Deepak Chopra, Will Forte, A$AP Rocky, Nick Offerman, Shepard Fairey, Lewis Black, Paul Scheer, Rob Corddry, Andy Richter, Judd Nelson, Sarah Silverman, Jim James, Diedrich Bader, Rob Huebel, Reggie Watts, Natasha Lyonne, Adam Horovitz, Mark Maron, Rosie Perez, Donovan, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Brett Gelman, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and David Cross.

One of the problems of doing a documentary like this is that you never really know how much people could be exaggerating or lying about these drug experiences. Many of the people interviewed are comedians and actors—two professions that are notorious for people fabricating things about their lives in order to get attention. Therefore, this documentary should not be considered very “realistic” by any stretch of the drug-addled imagination.

The psychedelic stories are re-enacted in one of two ways: through animation or by having live actors do a scripted skit. The animated segments (from Sugarshack Animation) are among the best aspects of the documentary. The scripted skits are hit-and-miss.

One of those misfires is miscasting Adam Devine as Bourdain in a re-enactment of Bourdain’s description of a drug-fueled, Hunter S. Thompson-inspired road trip that he took when he was a young man in the 1970s. Devine is known for having a sweet and goofy persona, while Bourdain was the complete opposite, which makes the re-enactment wrong from the get-go.

Even worse, the story that Bourdain tells isn’t even that funny. The road trip included Bourdain and a male friend picking up two women and partying heavily with them in a hotel room, including ingesting several drugs, such as LSD, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. One of the women overdosed, and the others thought she was dead. So they just left her unconscious on the floor while they tried to figure out what to do, according to Bourdain.

Bourdain, while high on LSD, says that he imagined that there would be police coming to arrest them, with helicopters, searchlights, and a S.W.A.T.-like team surrounding the room. And then the woman suddenly regained consciousness and started to dance as if nothing had happened. Someone could’ve died from ingesting drugs while you were partying with that person, you had a LSD-induced panic attack about being arrested, and that’s supposed to be funny?

A better re-enactment that accomplishes its intended humor is Natasha Leggero dressed in a “Star Wars” Princess Leia outfit, for Fisher’s tale of being high on LSD while in New York City’s Central Park. During that psychedelic experience, Fisher says she spent a great deal of time being upset at seeing an acorn “misbehave” on the grass. During another acid trip on a beach, Fisher vaguely remembers she might have been topless when a bus full of Japanese tourists stopped right in front of her and they recognized her.

And in a somewhat clever casting switcheroo, Corddry plays Scheer in the segment that re-enacts Scheer’s psychedelic story, while Scheer plays Corddy in Corddry’s re-enactment. Meanwhile, Kroll portrays himself in his re-enactment about how he and a group of male friends were high on LSD at a Malibu beach, and the friends covered him in kelp as a prank. He then imagined himself to be a kelp monster and chased them around the beach. (Things weren’t so funny the next morning when he woke up covered in bites from whatever small animals were in the kelp.)

Most of the psychedelic trips described in the documentary are about hallucinations, experiencing colors in a different way, or losing a sense of time or memory. And there are the typical stories of “revelations,” along the lines of “I saw inside my soul,” “I saw how connected the world is” and “I found out the meaning of life is to love everybody.” Some of the people interviewed also give advice by saying it’s better to take psychedelics with trusted friends and to avoid looking in mirrors while under the influence of psychedelics.

A$AP Rocky (one of the few people of color who’s interviewed in the film) tells one of the documentary’s funniest stories, about how he took LSD with a beautiful female companion. During the course of the time they had together, they started having sex. And he swears that he saw a rainbow shoot from his penis during this encounter. “I don’t even like rainbows,” he quips. (Needless to say, the re-enactment for this story is definitely in animation form.)

But for every entertaining story like that one, the documentary has a story that’s basic or boring. The Grateful Dead was considered the ultimate psychedelic rock band, so you’d think one of the Dead’s drummers would have some hilarious stories to tell. Wrong.

Kreutzmann’s anecdotes aren’t that interesting or revealing, unless you consider it’s fascinating that he tells a story of coming home to his parents’ house after staying out all night while he was on LSD, and hallucinating that his breakfast meal of eggs were moving on the plate. He also mentions that he once couldn’t finish performing at a Grateful Dead concert because he was hallucinating that his drums were melting. Yawn.

Being stoned on psychedelics at a Grateful Dead show is also predictably mentioned by some of the interviewees, such as Corddry and Maron. (The late Fred Willard has a cameo as a Deadhead hippie in the re-enactment of Maron’s psychedelic story.) Garant comedically describes how you can tell the difference between someone having a “good trip” and a “bad trip” at a Dead concert, because someone having a “good trip” will lean forward while walking, while someone having a “bad trip” will lean backward while walking, as if they’re afraid of where their head will go.

Sting, who says he’s had good and bad psychedelic trips, mentions that facing his own mortality was one of the most frightening things he ever experienced while under the influence of psychedelics. He also describes the first time he took peyote. It was at a farm in England, where he was unexpectedly asked to help a cow give birth while he was tripping out on the drug. He was told that the cow would die if he didn’t help, and when the calf was born, Sting says he finally understood the miracle of life.

“I think it’s a valuable experience,” says Sting of taking psychedelic drugs. “Whenever I’ve had a bad trip—and I’ve had many—I’ve realized it was what I needed. Sometimes, you need to have your ego taken down a notch or two. On the other hand, you can have immensely rewarding experiences. My feeling is that it balances out.”

Stiller is one of the few celebrities in the documentary who talks about disliking what he says was his one and only experience with LSD (when he was a young man in the ’80s), because it was a bad trip. He says that he was hoping that it would be an enlightening experience, but instead he spent the approximately six-hour acid trip feeling “fear and anxiety.”

“Immediately, I started to freak out and get really scared,” Stiller remembers. “I started staring at my hand, doing the cliché thing of of pondering what my hand was.” His paranoia during the acid trip was made worse, he says, when he and the friend he was with at the time began walking around New York City and saw the parade floats that were going to be in the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Stiller says that he hallucinated that the floats were chasing him, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the “Ghostbusters” movie.

Perez and Silverman each say that the first time they took LSD, it was by accident. Silverman said that it happened when she and some comedian friends were hanging out at a diner in New York City, when a hippie stranger walked in and handed her a tab of LSD that she took without even asking what it was. Her story isn’t as coherent as some of the others, since she recalls laughing and crying with a group of people in public and then ending up in someone’s car with the driver (who was also on LSD) forgetting how to drive.

Perez said she got “dosed” when she was out with her sister on New Year’s Eve in their hometown of New York City, sometime in the late ’80s. They went to a nightclub, where she was offered some fruit punch as a drink. Little did she know that the punch was spiked with LSD. Perez says that she  hallucinated that the dance floor had turned into waves, and she ended up rolling around with her breasts exposed.

Her trip intensified when she got home and imagined that her body had merged into her bed. Perez says she didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol at this time in her life, so when she was told that she was having an acid trip, her first thought was that she was going to hell. She says that the experience led her to seek therapy, which helped her get over her “Catholic guilt,” so she thinks getting rid of her religious hang-ups was one good thing that came out of the experience.

Speaking of guilt trips, the movie pokes fun at the ridiculous, over-the-top and usually badly acted public-service announcements (PSAs) aimed at preventing people, especially young people, from taking psychedelics. Offerman pops up occasionally throughout the film in a parody of a science professor who talks about the effects of psychedelics. NBCUniversal’s “The More You Know” PSA campaign is mocked with “The More You Trip,” whenever one of the interviewees gives advice on what to do or what not to do when taking psychedelics. (For example: “Don’t drive while on acid.”)

The “ABC Afterschool Special” is given the satire treatment with the documentary’s “LSD Afterschool Special,” a multi-part segment that has actor/comedian Adam Scott as the host of a 1980s-styled PSA film with a plot of nerdy high schoolers (played by Haley Joel Osment and Maya Erskine) going to a house party and being tempted into the “evils” of taking LSD. It’s a funny idea but it’s executed poorly.

On a more serious note, “Have a Good Trip” also attempts to promote the theory that using psychedelics is the best way to treat depression and other mental-health issues. Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is interviewed about his research in this area. Not surprisingly, he’s a proponent of using psychedelics to treat these issues (how else would he be able to continue to get research money), but the documentary fails to present other scientific points of view.

The only other non-entertainer interviewed in the film is Zach Leary, son of famed LSD guru Timothy Leary. And what he has to say is very predictable and reveals nothing new at all: “DMT is like the express ticket to primordial ooze. If you want to see what it is to be an organic being and absolutely watch your ego dissipate into nothingness, smoke some DMT, and you’ll get there right away.”

Although some people in the documentary, including Dr. Grob, caution that taking psychedelics isn’t for everyone and can have damaging effects for some people, any of those “bad effects” stories are shut out of the film. It’s like doing a documentary about bungee jumping and refusing to talk about the people who got seriously injured or killed from this risky stunt.

Celebrity spiritual guru Chopra, who says he experimented with psychedelics in the past, is one of the few people in the film who admits “you run the risk of psychosis” from doing psychedelics. Of course, the film only presents stories from people who say that they have “happy endings” from taking psychedelics. And two of those people are now dead because of self-destructive reasons, so viewers can judge for themselves how “beneficial” psychedelics really are in helping people with serious health issues such as depression and addiction.

One of the more irresponsible things about the documentary is that it leaves out any talk of acid flashbacks. Naïve people who see this film as a guide to taking psychedelic drugs might think that once an acid trip is “over,” the drug has left the body, the way that alcohol can leave the human body through urine after a 24-to-48-hour period if no more alcohol is consumed. But the scientific reality is that, depending on the dosage, psychedelic drugs can stay in the body for a variable period of time, and that can lead to unpredictable and random “flashback” trips.

How people feel about “Have a Good Trip” will depend largely on how much they worship celebrities and take their words as gospel. The psychedelic anecdotes in the film should be taken for what they are—stories from people who are in the business of creating fake personas and making things look more glamorous than they really are.

The people who were chosen to be interviewed for this documentary also have the privilege of being less likely to be arrested for illegal drugs. (With few exceptions, most of the people in this film have a certain level of fame.) And they are less likely to have their careers ruined by a lot of psychedelic drug use, compared to people who don’t live in such a privileged bubble. It’s something to think about whenever you hear a celebrity in a certain income bracket openly brag about using illegal drugs.

Netflix premiered “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” on May 11, 2020.

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