Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April of 2010.
“Drugs are bad, mmm-kay,” said South Park’s school counselor Mr. Mackey, and while he couldn’t be more spot-on, movies about drugs certainly aren’t bad… many of them, anyway. In fact, drugs are fodder for filmmaking that has become increasingly popular over the years, as evidenced by the numerous projects produced that deal with such lurid subject matter. And why not? The topic of substance abuse and addiction can lend itself well to some pretty absorbing material much needed for an engaging film.
However, many critics seem gun-shy about praising such films. The gripes usually stem from their feelings that the movies are too formulaic and just trite retreads of previously released material. Though, it often seems that these criticisms are missing the point. After all, these films aren’t always about presenting a new take on addiction. The subject is used simply to provide fuel for an interesting narrative. Besides, drug use itself doesn’t really offer tons of opportunity to unveil unique revelations. While the details of each addict’s descent may be different, the journey is often the same. Additionally, reviewers proffer that characters aren’t inherently interesting solely because they’re addicts.
This is a legitimate concern, but it’s this mindset that too commonly causes critics to adopt an overly dismissive attitude towards the material. Conversely, on the rare occasion when they do laud a drug film it goes primarily unnoticed by a large audience. It’s with all this in mind that the following list is presented. Sure, everyone knows about films such as The Man with the Golden Arm (recently reviewed here), Scarface and Traffic, but there are plenty of other worthwhile films dealing with drugs that have been produced over the years that are either undeservedly unappreciated or overlooked:
The Panic in Needle Park (1971): Before Scarface and before Al Pacino became a superstar, he was featured in his first starring role in this slimy little gem as a desperate street hustler constantly on the prowl for heroin who succeeds in completely pulling the innocent girl (Kitty Winn) who’s unfortunate to fall in love with him down into the gutter as well. Incredibly gritty, the film not only does a fine job depicting the downward spiral of heroin addiction and the drug culture in New York, but also illustrates how it can so negatively impact relationships to the point that no matter how much two people care about one another, the drugs are always more important. The two leads are fantastic, and while the film gained popularity after Pacino made it big, it wasn’t quite a huge hit at the time of its release.
The Boost (1988): Many critics completely dismiss this film and it’s totally undeserved. Maybe they were distracted by the off-camera drama surrounding stars James Woods and Sean Young. Regardless, the movie is perhaps one of the most intense portrayals concerning the deterioration of the soul due to drug abuse ever captured, due in large part to Woods’ performance. Woods is one of America’s finest actors (and a somewhat undervalued one, at that) and he almost leaps off the screen as Lenny Brown, a guy who gets a taste for cocaine as a “boost” to get him through tough times. Well, the times only get tougher once the drug takes hold of him, only he can’t see it. He doesn’t even realize his true problem when he hits rock bottom, and the ending of the film is appropriately unglamorous and chilling.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989): Miraculously, most reviewers were actually in agreement about what a fine film this early effort from director Gus Van Sant was. Too bad no one saw it. The movie concerns a “family” of junkies who travel around robbing drug stores for prescription medication to feed their habits. Matt Dillon is brilliant as the gang’s leader who’s simply trying to understand his addiction. Matters begin to get really dire for Dillon when he finally realizes that life is out of control and he must separate himself from his posse, including his longtime girlfriend, Kelly Lynch. The film’s somber and unflinching tone and the genuine relationships between the characters provide a basis for real poignancy. Look for author William S. Burroughs in a small role.
The Basketball Diaries (1995): Yet another film that was largely dismissed unfairly either for glamorizing the lifestyle, playing up hackneyed premises, or being a simple vehicle for young (at the time) heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to brood. On the contrary, The Basketball Diaries is actually the true story of poet/musician Jim Carroll and his struggles with addiction. Critics confusing the supposed romanticism of the film are again missing the point. It’s through Carroll’s plight that his ability as an artist actually starts to come to fruition, and it serves as proof that if one is lucky enough to overcome a drug problem that positive things can come out of it. DiCaprio is top-notch in the stark role (originally intended for River Phoenix, which alone adds a devastating nuance to the film), and Mark Wahlberg is equally credible in an early turn.
Trainspotting (1995): This might be an obvious choice, and admittedly this film was a huge hit in the UK and has a sizable cult following in America, but it did take some flack in the U.S. for supposedly condoning drug use, which is just untrue and wrong. Perhaps some folks were put off by the fact that despite the film’s harrowing moments, there are also plenty of laughs. However, desperation can sometimes lead to humor. That’s life. Anyway, the movie is superbly stylish and honest in its portrayal that drugs are often just a way to maintain one’s life, albeit a negative way, and the cast pulls everything off uncompromisingly, from Ewan McGregor to Robert Carlyle.
Another Day in Paradise (1998): James Woods strikes again! He’s so good, he makes the list twice. Part road movie, part drug odyssey, Paradise features Woods as a junkie/dealer/thief who, along with his wife (Melanie Griffith), takes a young drug-addicted couple (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) under his wing as they take to the road in order to survive together under the guise of “family.” Director Larry Clark’s decadent and emotional journey deftly illustrates the bleak lengths addicts will go to just to get by and acquire more drugs. The performances are strong across the board.
Permanent Midnight (1998): Incredibly underrated and unnoticed true story of successful TV writer Jerry Stahl (responsible for such shows as thirtysomething, Moonlighting and ALF) features Ben Stiller as Stahl, in a phenomenal performance and a rare dramatic role. The film details how many people in L.A. can be so self-absorbed that it’s possible to get away with hardcore heroin abuse right under everyone’s nose. Stiller is pure energy as a frantic, impatient addict consumed by his sickness, but who also eventually realizes that the only person who can save him is himself.
Requiem for a Dream (2000): Even though this depressing yet effective film garnered an Oscar nomination for Ellen Burstyn, the movie was largely overshadowed by the success of Traffic in the same year and again panned by some critics usually for being exploitative and too difficult to watch. It never ceases to amaze how some folks just don’t get it. Films dealing with tough, dark subject matter are supposed to be hard to stomach! Anyway, director Darren Aronofsky deserves a ton of credit for using unconventional camera tricks to convey atmosphere as well as his characters’ moods. Additionally, complementing Burstyn’s great performance as an older woman who spins out of control are Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly who have their own problems as hopeless substance abusers. Viewing each character’s downfall is downright cringe-worthy, though NOT exploitative.
Blow (2001): A lot of people don’t like this movie because they can’t find a reason to care about George Jung, the man responsible for supplying much of America with cocaine during the ‘70s and ‘80s as Pablo Escobar’s main distributor. Jung may not be worth caring about, but his story is certainly an interesting one. Director Ted Demme’s effort is incredibly slick, and Johnny Depp’s charm is undeniable as Jung. Drug dealers are obviously not the greatest people, but it’s impossible not to appreciate Depp’s skillful portrayal of a man who only cares about himself.
Wonderland (2003): The late John Holmes may have been one of America’s most famous porn stars, but he definitely wasn’t a good person. This thought is examined in the completely overlooked drama concerning Holmes’ possible (but let’s face it, “probable”) involvement in the grisly 1981 Wonderland murders on L.A.’s Wonderland Avenue that were all about drugs and drug money. Told from various perspectives (as the crimes to this day remain unsolved), the film paints a seedy portrait of the drug-addicted Holmes, brilliantly essayed by Val Kilmer, and how an addict’s lifestyle can sometimes lead to ultimate evil.