To Fallen Heroes: Ben Cousins’ “Such Is Life”

“Such is life”, the apparent last words of one Edward “Ned” Kelly, is the three word mantra tattooed across Ben Cousins’ lower torso and the title of the heavily promoted Seven documentary which ensnared 2 million viewers last night. I watched, with mixed feelings and a healthy sense of skepticism, but must say that it’s futile to judge “Such Is Life” without viewing it in its entirety. Seven, opportunistically, have cleaved the documentary in two and will air the final half tonight.

Either way it seems logical to start at the beginning right? Cool. The documentary opens with Cousins addressing the viewer directly, pleading for parents to watch with their children, to learn from his mistakes and to kick start an honest discussion about the nature of addiction. And there begins the audience’s internal reconciliation between Cousins the reformed ne’er-do-well and Cousins the self-destructive drug addict.

From that introduction and all throughout the documentary’s first half, you sit there and wrestle with the exact nature of his intent. Is this an earnest attempt at redemption or a clever, media savvy exercise in saving face? Or even worse, an opportunistic way to make a buck. In the end though, and I’m not misanthropic enough to think it’s anything but the former scenario, it’s inconsequential what Cousins’ intentions are. The transparency with which the former great discusses drug addiction should be applauded for its bravery alone. On more than one occasion he’s shown smoking ice, fraternizing with Perth underworld figures and physically twitching while high. He admits to taking valium, cocaine, ice, speed and ecstasy (among others) in a wide ranging narcotic shopping list which reads like a brain penetrating chorus Josh Homme once penned. It’s a harrowing depiction of drug addiction and one which aims to deter instead of glorify substance abuse. Whether it serves this intended purpose though, is another question.

From the outset the message is staunchly anti-drugs. Don’t entertain the thought of taking drugs we’re told, and seek professional help if you do (this message is compounded by a drug helpline PSA which unceremoniously pops up before cutting to commercial). But during the first quarter of the documentary, Cousins claims that hedonistic drug binges were his chief psychological motivator during the regular season slog. When Cousins abandons his car to avoid a roadside booze bus, the ensuing fence jumping, roof climbing, river crossing getaway feels frantically cinematic, perfect fodder for an Undebelly-style telemovie perhaps (please God no). In what Cousins calls a “method that was working”, a modus operandi he retrospectively condemns, he claims that the more drugs he took the better he played. Then there’s his ill-advised decision to enter this kind of rock star drug rehabilitation centre in Malibu, California – where he would later go missing and require medical attention after a psychosis inducing cocaine bender. Time after time the line between glorification and condemnation blurs. Is he a human being at the complete mercy of drug addiction or a fun-loving rascal? He obviously seeks redemption but for the most part, Cousins’ chief regret seems to be the fact that he got caught.

Furthermore, if it is indeed redemption that Cousins seeks, he’ll had to do more than play the victim. He complains of victimization on more than one occasion – from the media, the AFL and his own club. When the AFL issued a 12 month ban after Cousins’ high profile take down in Northbridge, Perth he paints himself as some kind of moralistic martyr. Set up by the cops and media like the hapless protagonist in the third act of a Scorsese epic. And we’re supposed to buy it. We’re supposed to empathize with his situation – a man whose indiscretions are as numerous as they are astonishing. An oft-brilliant midfielder who was once spruiked as “a sponsor’s dream”. A six time All-Australian who made his first grade debut at 17, claimed West Coast’s sole captaincy at 22, won a Brownlow at 27 and, the following September, claimed football’s ultimate prize, an AFL championship. A man who, at the height of his addiction, spent tens of thousands of dollars a week on drugs. A man who, it can be universally agreed, is good looking in that stereotypically Australian way. None of this helps endear Cousins to viewers despite his compelling trials (quite literally in some cases) and tribulations for the simple fact that his life seems so charmed. It also doesn’t help that he stands to profit from the documentary’s success or that he appears to be stifling an ever-present air of smugness throughout the film’s duration. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the bravery I’ve seen thus far and the filmmaker skillfully sidesteps saccharine over-sentimentalization but at its core this needs to be a documentary about the cause and effect of drug addiction. And so far, despite the visceral home footage and drug rehabilitation experts and stoic admissions of guilt, we’ve seen little of either.

But maybe that’s what the second half is for. Perhaps the documentary’s second act will fulfill Cousins’ initial promise to illuminate the nature of drug addiction. Perhaps it is here where the psychological root cause, the warning signs and the health dangers of substance abuse will be discussed. Maybe it will finally reach that nobler, higher cause it so desperately wants to stand for. That brave cautionary tale that provokes honest public discourse about a problem which doesn’t just affect the homeless, the mentally ill or the aimless – but our heroes too. We’ll have to wait and see. As the great F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked “There are no second acts in American lives” – well tonight, in the second act of the documentary which candidly explores his own, Cousins will try to prove this wrong of Australian lives. We’ll be watching.