Filmmakers are hooked on addiction flicks


They can be the life of the party or the black hole at the Thanksgiving table, often both. Love ‘em and hate ‘em, the addicts among us are a fact of life, and a perennial subject for filmmakers.

As habits go, it’s one that makes sense. With their raw need, masterful manipulation skills and inevitable unraveling, dipsomaniacs and junkies are riveting movie characters. Even when the film’s psychology is pat, as in this year’s “Shame,” the roles themselves give actors something to sink their teeth into. In the appraisal frenzy of awards season, such roles tend to be conspicuous because bad behavior usually is.

Michael Fassbender’s eye-catching portrayal of a sex addict in “Shame” is the latest in a lineage of sorts that began with Ray Milland’s alcoholic novelist manqué in Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend.” That 1945 feature remains one of the most harrowing of addiction dramas, notwithstanding its melodramatic touches and hopeful ending.


The best films about people in the throes of addiction center on full-blooded individuals with all their contradictions, not walking collections of pathological symptoms. They don’t psychologize or explain, don’t whip up back story to fill in the haunting gaps. They accept the existential fact of self-medicating behavior without reaching for big-picture metaphor. The suggestions of societal dysfunction in “Shame” ring as hollow as director Steve McQueen’s antiseptic view of Manhattan — not because they’re devoid of truth, but because, like the childhood-abuse background he supplies for his main character, they’re so forced.

Wilder, in contrast, aimed for a documentary effect in “Lost Weekend,” often employing a hidden camera and bookending the film with images of the Manhattan skyline. As an expression of the main character’s state of mind — that is, a physical manifestation of shame — Wilder’s in-the-moment cityscape is far more potent than McQueen’s artistically framed wasteland. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Milland’s character embarks on a desperate search for a place to hock his typewriter, only to find every pawnshop in the borough closed: It’s Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the vérité sensibility, which suffuses some of the most searing screen portraits of addicts, is an approach that plunges headlong into expressionism. Movies on the expressionist side usually bring a cartoonish or comic edge to the suffering and degradation they depict. They often try too hard, and miss the mark, in their attempts to create a cinematic language for inebriation and the correlative experience of jonesing for it.

The antic amphetamine rush of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” is an aesthetic choice unconnected to the protagonist’s preferred drug, heroin. With “Requiem for a Dream,” Darren Aronofsky achieves an impressive aural and visual hyper-intensity that’s fitfully effective but at times merely distracting. Intentionally, no doubt, the effects overpower the characters in this nightmare vision of Brighton Beach (read: lower-middle-class America), where everybody wants something better and everybody’s using something, whether it’s street drugs or prescription diet pills.

The hallucinatory ripples and black comedy of Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” work because he perfectly captures druggie cadences, physical and verbal (as he would do again in “Last Days”). Matt Dillon’s goofy but self-aware Pacific Northwest crook and his ragtag crew stand in opposition to the square world, but even so the film is at heart a confession. “You can buck the system,” Dillon’s character realizes, “but you can’t buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface.”

Dillon’s antihero embodies the sheer force of personality that makes extreme screen behavior so watchable. In his second screen role, playing a small-time criminal and addict, Al Pacino nearly bursts off the screen in “The Panic in Needle Park.” Jerry Schatzberg’s intimate and shattering portrait of a young couple in 1971 New York still feels fresh 40 years after its release. Pacino and Kitty Winn, in her movie debut, are spellbinding as beautiful losers hooked on each other and smack.


With its docudrama aesthetic, Schatzberg’s vérité immersion in junkie culture recalls “On the Bowery,” Lionel Rogosin’s extraordinary 1957 scripted documentary (restored and re-released this year, thanks to Milestone Films). “Bowery” focuses on the hopeless alcoholics who frequent cheap dives in Lower Manhattan, long before the construction of “Shame”-era luxury lofts. Like “Needle Park,” it zeros in on life on the margins, without apology or explanation: the lying and betrayal, the camaraderie and sense of belonging, and the endless need for the next fix. Filmed in the grungier districts of 20th century Manhattan, both films capture the soot and rhythm of the streets with powerful immediacy.

The city, often New York, is a recurring character in the cinema of addiction. Winos and shooting galleries aren’t unique to the urban United States, but American movies in particular have forefronted the subject of substance dependency, and the metropolis, with its surfeit of sensory stimulation and contraband, is elemental to those stories. In 1930s exploitation pictures such as “The Cocaine Fiends” and “Marihuana” (which preceded by a couple of years the more widely known and ridiculed “Reefer Madness”), the city is a lure for wide-eyed innocents, a big bad cesspool — albeit one that’s full of life, a far cry from the joyless void of “Shame.”

In these potboilers, the city is a place of such debauchery that it names its cafes after dead rodents, as hotbed of libertinism Paris once did. Mustachioed dealers prey on the world’s oldest young people, getting them hooked by duping them into snorting “headache powders.” But you don’t have to be a gullible kid to be ensnared; even Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted mother in Eugene O’Neill’s 1912-set play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” claims she was first given the drug without a true understanding of its nature. In the case of Mary — not unlike Ellen Burstyn’s hapless Brooklynite in “Requiem for a Dream” — the dispensing party is a doctor.

O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical drama, memorably brought to the screen by Sidney Lumet with Katharine Hepburn as Mary, explores the connection between the artistic temperament and addiction — a favorite theme, whether it’s Milland’s struggling writer, the theatrical Tyrones or the outsize lives traced in biopics such as “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “Bird” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” Even at nearly three hours and with a fair share of back story, “Long Day’s Journey” doesn’t seek explanations for the Tyrone family’s corrosive ties. It’s propelled by emotional truth, and at film’s end, the characters are fully enveloped in shadow.

In other words, it doesn’t fit into the penance-and-redemption template that has become as familiar as close-ups of syringes and spiked veins: the roller-coaster ride of denial, descent and bottoming out, followed by remorse, awakening, recovery and backsliding. Woody Allen famously parodied the movie language of down-and-out in one of the vignettes in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask),” in which Gene Wilder’s physician hits the skids after discovering the answer to the question “What Is Sodomy?” Fassbender’s sex addict wouldn’t get the joke.

O’Neill, for his part, understood the ways love can aid and abet our worst instincts. “I don’t want you coming down when I’m up,” Pacino’s character complains to his girlfriend in “Needle Park.” The trajectory of their codependency recalls Blake Edwards’ 1962 drama “Days of Wine and Roses,” another story in which the downward spiral is built for two.


They’re very different movies, but in both cases the innocent — the country girl — comes to the city and learns to outdo the vet at his addiction. For Lee Remick, who eventually outdrinks Jack Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses,” the gateway drug is a brandy Alexander, but her transition is no less wrenching than Winn’s succumbing to the needle.

In both films, the idea of an escape to the country represents — as it does in the American imagination, even in an era of rural meth labs — a chance at health, renewal and redemption, or, as a character in “Lost Weekend” puts it, “trees and grass and sweet cider and buttermilk,” wholesome alternatives to temptation. But the neon city, with its Dead Rat Café, proves a hard place to leave.