There is a culture surrounding illicit drugs seen by most through the world of the motion picture. Not many people encounter recreational drug use in their everyday lives (or most who do at least won’t admit to it). I’ve identified 3 common subgenres of the drug movie: the drug lord movie (like Blow (2001) or Scarface (1983)), the drug adventure flick (something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or Harold and Kumar (2004) even), and finally the addiction stories, the last of which I will be examining here.
Addiction stories usually chronicle the rise and fall of the addiction process from the initial positive associations that go along with the early usage to the dramatic crash either physically, emotionally, or socially due to addiction and/or withdrawal. Three films stand out in my mind as perfect examples.
The first of which is Requiem for a Dream based on the book by Hubert Selby, Jr. Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 followup to his cult hit Pi (1998), went in depth into the culture of addiction. Ellen Burstyn plays an aging woman, Sara, addicted to amphetamines. Jared Leto plays a young man, Harry, addicted to heroin and dealing drugs to earn money to move up in society and start a business with his girlfriend, Marion portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. She is also hooked and is forced to whore herself for money. His friend, Tyrone, played by Marlon Waynes (and surprisingly well at that), wants to use the money as a way out of Brooklyn. All of them run into significant problems along the way and are displayed in great detail from arrests to psychotic breakdowns to physical illnesses. Each character is incredibly deep and well acted (especially considering many of the actors in the film are not usually praised for their dramatic talents – most notably Marlon Waynes) I don’t want to give anything away, but the last half of the film is not for the faint of heart. Each of the characters denies the severity of their situation until things get out of hand. (**Spoiler Alert**: Leto's character injects heroin into an infected open wound at his inner elbow which continues to become more grotesque looking. He must then get his arm amputated, all of which is shown. Also, Burstyn's character is given intense electroshock therapy.) Aronofsky enters into the realm of all types of addictions from prescription drugs to illicit drugs to mundane things like sex and television. Requiem uses special techniques to enhance the experience and allow the viewer to “feel the effects” of the drugs. A SnorriCam (a camera mount similar to a SteadyCam that keeps the actor stationary on screen while having the background move) is used during many drug trip sequences. Sights and sounds are, many times, hightened. Aaronofsky will also show graphic depictions of needles piercing the skin and pupils dilating. During most of the drug taking scenes, he creates a montage of images related to that mode of intoxication which is then followed by a short trip. It is a daring film that tries to depict the realities of addiction.
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) is a Scottish “pitch black comedy” (Time Out London) film based on the novel by Irvine Welsh depicting Mark Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, among others, as an addict in modern day Scotland. The opening monologue (which had to be redubbed for the American version to make it more comprehensible due to McGregor’s strong accent) tells the audience that instead of choosing the traditional life, he and his friends have chosen a “less ambitious path”. They live mundane lives and use heroin on a regular basis. Renton vows to quit heroin and take a better path in life, but faces temptation around every corner. He eventually falls back into his old habits, but the group begins to learn the harsh realities of their lifestyle. 2 of the characters have a child together, but it is neglected and dies. The dead corpse of the child is shown in their run down apartment. They aren’t completely changed by the experience revealing the power of addiction. Renton is sent to a drug rehab center after being caught by police for stealing. After he is released, he returns to his old ways and ODs. Renton is forced to go cold turkey and a very strange series of images appear as the audience is forced to tap into the psychological disarray of Renton (one of the images is the dead baby crawling on the ceiling of Renton’s bedroom). His friend Tommy gets AIDS which proves to be the last straw for Renton. He moves to London to start anew. His former life follows him and trouble ensues until Renton finally frees himself from his drug ties and vows to lead a traditional life. The film shows the struggles and triumphs of an addict both on and off drugs. Along with the dead child, there are explicit images including those of heroin injection (done on a prosthetic arm made up to have track marks and all). Renton also takes opium suppositories. Shortly after doing so and leaving his apartment, he says, “Heroin makes you constipated. The heroin from my last hit is fading away and the suppositories have yet to melt.” He rushes to a public bathroom where after defecating in a disgusting public toilet, he reaches in and sifts through the fecal matter to find the excreted suppositories. If that is not a taboo thing to show, then I don’t know what is. The film is praised for its bravado in taking on such subject matter and was actually listed at #10 on the British Film Institute’s all time best British films.
Half Nelson (2006) is a film directed by Ryan Fleck about an inner city junior high teacher and basketball coach, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling). Dunne is an inspiring teacher in the classroom, but outside he is addicted to crack. One of his students discovers him in the bathroom getting high leading to a string of events that create an in depth character study of an unlikely victim of addiction. This “realistic” portrayal has been widely praised and won numerous awards including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (2 years after the Ryan Fleck short on which it is based won there). Gosling was also nominated for an Oscar for his performance. This film, unlike the others is less graphic in its depictions of drug use. It focuses more on the character of Dan Dunne and how the drug use affects his relationships with those around him. One of the most interesting filmic elements of Half Nelson is its use of a handheld camera. Except for one scene, the entire film is shot in handheld. This gives the audience a more personal point of view and allows them to be more involved in the characters’ lives.
Drug films take an interesting look at something that many “upstanding citizens” try to avoid. Filmmakers who take on such subjects by promoting the happiness the drugs lend while showing the terrible destruction they bring on get a lot of criticism, both positive and negative because of both its bold approach and stigma in society. The more “realistic” the portrayal, the more controversy it generates. And like I’ve said before, film takes on these subjects head on.