Sifting through a few of IMDB’s top lists, one cannot deny that a large number of American and European Cinema’s popular films revolve around the subject of addiction in its many ways and forms. Most of them serve to show that addiction as a topic in itself, is as valid a topic to make a movie about as any other. This post will be looking at drug addiction, while other posts in the future will be tackling other forms of addiction. A large number of films tend to present drugs so appealingly, the viewer will be left wondering if a clean and sober life really is the way to go. Such is the power of film.
This is why today I decided to go through a few key films concerning substance abuse and question whether each one ends up condemning or rather glorifying the addiction in question. It should be noted that this list will be purposely limited to popular or mainstream films.
1) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
[Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Johnny Depp & Benicio Del Toro, 1998]
[IMDB description – An oddball journalist and his psychopathic lawyer travel to Las Vegas for a series of psychedelic escapades.]
Drug Depiction: Hunter S. Thompson’s psychedelic off-beat classic is brought to the big screen. The story follows Raoul Duke travelling across (the very wild) Western America with his lawyer who is simply referred to as Dr.Gonzo. How do they do they survive? Thanks to the substantial quantity of drugs and alcohol they have stashed in their convertible. A bizarre trip (of a road-trip movie) – and, if you’re open for that sort of thing, could lead to your becoming interested in psychedelic recreational drugs.
Verdict: Definitely glorifies drug addiction – While being extremely surreal and, if more often than not, migraine inducing, the drug depiction is extremely descriptive and alluring.
2) Requiem for a Dream
[Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, 2000]
[IMDB description: The drug-induced utopias of four Coney Island people are shattered when their addictions become stronger]
Drug Depiction: Drug addiction and it’s aftermath is presented as despairingly dark and ugly. While the film is highly stylized and is considered a cult classic, it remains one of the most disturbing and uncomfortable films you’re ever bound to see, period. The audience mostly takes a third seat and watches the protagonists’ lonely yet violent descent into painful humiliation.
Verdict: Condemns drug addiction.
[Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, 1996]
[IMDB Description: Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.]
Drug Depiction: The film is about Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) and his attempt to give up a long-standing drug habit, and how difficult it is for him to do so successfully while keeping in check his relationship with his friends, who are also users. Peer includes Tommy, an athlete who even though has been clean all his life, is dying for a taste; the guileless Spud, and the unpredictable, ultra-violent Begbie.
Verdict: Paints the drug life as the ultimate crapper.
4) Knocked Up
[Directed by Judd Apatow. Starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, 2007]
[IMDB Description: For fun loving party animal Ben Stone, the last thing he ever expected was for his one night stand to show up on his doorstep eight weeks later to tell him she’s pregnant.]
Drug Depiction: Knocked up is frankly about how Ben, (played by the real-life Ben, or as he is otherwise known, Seth Rogen) a fun-loving, well-intentioned, pot smoking Jewish Mr.Skin aficionado, gets Alison Scott pregnant. Alison happens to be an impossible match for Ben – she’s attractive, glamorous, together and an E! Television producer. But what the hey, this is Hollywood. The film doubles as both an odd-couple movie, a rom-com of sorts (think a modern-day Nine Months (1995)), and yet another stoner film. Because those films will always find the most loyal of audiences. Check out Dazed and Confused (1993), Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978), Pineapple Express (2008), The Big Lebowski, (1998), Half Baked (1998), Dude Where’s My Car (2000) to name a few!
Verdict: Definitely glorifies the soft-drug use & lifestyle. Seth Rogen is the sh**t!
5) The Wolf of Wall Street
[Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, 2013]
[IMDB Description: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stock-broker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.]
Drug Depiction: A rags-to-riches gangster story full of swearwords, heavier on the sex than the violence, this film tells the true life story of Jordan Belfort, a penny stockbroker in the early 1990s known for his less-than-conservative lifestyle in Wall Street’s heyday. An epic film (3 hours long) which, in our humble opinion, could have perhaps benefited from a tighter cut, TWOWS is a modern-day crime film, which ultimately is more about sex addiction than that related to illegal substances. And the year’s Oscar winner’s chest pounding scene was just… surreal.
Verdict: Definitely glorifies drug use & lifestyle – a life with Quaaludes as your breakfast, dinner and supper could result in your spending the rest of your days guest lecturing about the art of sales.
[Directed by Ted Demme. Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, 2001]
[IMDB Description: The story of George Jung, the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1970s.]
Drug Depiction: George Jung comes from a broken family. His mother leaves his father many times, and his father welcomes her back with open arms. In his father, the young George sees financial failure, and when, a few years later, the opportunity comes for him to start dealing in soft drugs, he takes it. Blow is another film (based on a) true rags-to-riches (to-jail) story, a story about a boy from an impoverished working class family went to partner up with Pablo Escobar during his time with the Medellín Cartel, to his ultimate betrayal and incarceration.
Verdict: While the film pretty much condemns drugs as a business choice, especially when depicting Jung’s later years balancing coke transportation and family life, it does make light of the soft-drugs depicted in the earlier, flower-power introductory segment of the film. The rad soundtrack and Dylan references make for a pretty groovy trip throughout the film’s running time. But ultimately, no, it’s unlikely to entice you to consider drugs as a career choice.
[Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Steven Bauer, F.Murray Abraham, 1983]
[IMDB Description: In 1980 Miami, a determined Cuban immigrant takes over a drug cartel while succumbing to greed.]
Drug Depiction: The film you’ve seen countless times and the character whose lines you’ve used most at parties. ‘Say ‘You wanna f**k with me? Okay! You wanna play rough?! Okay! Say Qello to my Littul Friend!’ ‘PAWAWAW!’
The Mariel Exodus of 1980 brought Tony Montana (a political prisoner from Cuba), to Florida. Assisted by his loyal friend Manny, he decides that power is his true calling. Working for drug lord Frank Lopez, he soon works (translation. blasts and stabs) his way up quickly – taking Lopez’s throne and his woman with him – in a crescendo of sex, drugs, and early 1980s synth-pop which – big surprise – leads to his destruction in the film’s mesmerising finale.
Verdict: The film condemns illegal drug use – as a tool as much as a trophy, in the conquest of power… but also glorifies it. The most powerful drug in the film, rather than coke which spends almost as much on-screen time as Pacino’s hula-shirts and linen suits, is the notion of power itself.
8) The Basketball Diaries
[Directed by Scott Kalvert. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, 1995]
[IMDB Description: Film adaptation of street tough Jim Carroll’s epistle about his kaleidoscopic free fall into the harrowing world of drug addiction.]
Drug Depiction: An intimate, poetic film based on Jim Carroll’s autobiographic memoir, the film touches on a range of sub-themes, all of which add another shade to the dark tapestry that made up Carroll’s early life – teenage friendships, sports squads, the death of a best friend, the basketball coach who further damages Jim and his peers by taking advantage of them – and heroin.
Verdict: Condemns drugs. While the film may come across as a tad too preachy, it lends an effective, accurate and sincere voice to everyday anti-drug awareness campaigns.
9) Walk the Line
[Directed by James Mangold. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, 2005]
[IMDB Description: A chronicle of country music legend Johnny Cash’s life, from his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm to his rise to fame with Sun Records in Memphis, where he recorded alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.]
Drug Depiction: The story of Johnny Cash’s humble beginnings and rise to fame, it focuses on his intense battles with drug addiction. A fast paced drama with a masterful performance from Phoenix (in his pre-I’m-gonna-be-a-hiphop-artist-hoax) days, the film’s tone changes as quickly as Cash’s escalating addiction to drugs. So much is the addiction a factor in this film that it was given a much more (albeit tongue-in-cheek) prominent depiction in Walk the Line’s highly entertaining parody, Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story (2007) .
Verdict: While the depiction of illegal substance abuse is a staple of the sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n roll biopic, WTL ultimately condemns drugs by presenting them as the reason for the downfall and possible near annihilation of what is today considered a legendary talent.
10) The Panic in Needle Park
[Directed by Jerry Schatzberg. Starring Al Pacino, Kitty Winn, 1971]
[IMDB Description: This movie is a stark portrayal of life among a group of heroin addicts who hang out in “Needle Park” in New York City.]
Drug Depiction – A very sober look at drug addiction, TPINP chronicles the daily lives of Helen (Kitty Winn), a homeless young girl who looks for stability in a relationship with Bobby (Al Pacino in his first feature-film starring role), a heroin junkie who steals whatever he can get his hands on to sustain his chronic habit. Widely considered to be the first film to feature actual drug injection shot in intimate detail, the film feels very crude. Its Cinéma Vérité style (brought on by the use of handheld cameras, actual locations, natural lighting and no soundtrack whatsoever) renders the incidents presented much more plausible, and the experience is disconcerting.
Verdict: The Panic in Needle Park could be the film that does manage to make you think again about touching hard drugs… without ever becoming preachy.
What did you think of this list? Is there a film that you think belongs with these? Tell me about it!