Hollywood has a schizophrenic relationship to the subject of drugs. In between stoner comedies like ‘Pineapple Express’ that celebrate drug use, we get more serious-minded dramas about drug addiction, drug smuggling or the so-called War on Drugs. Our Roundtable this week looks at some of the better examples of the latter.
M. Enois Duarte
Since watching his eccentric romantic fantasy ‘Maelström’, Denis Villeneuve has slowly climbed to the top of my list of best filmmakers currently working today. One of my favorite movies about drugs is the Canadian director’s ‘Sicario‘. It’s an absolutely brilliant film tackling the United States’ frustratingly complex relationship with the immensely powerful and influential drug cartels of the south. Showing that there are no easy answers in this brutal fight, not even in the fantasy world of movie magic, the film ends on a vague note depicting U.S. operations possibly becoming as malevolent and dangerous as the very cartels they claim to dismantle.
Another superb tale about drugs is the Brazilian crime film ‘City of God‘. The story follows two childhood friends growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and how their lives go in drastically different paths. Other than the gorgeous cinematography, brilliant editing and the skilled camerawork of its two directors, the film dramatizes the rise of organized crime in the outskirts of that sadly impoverished city. Its genius is in how it depicts the drug trafficking criminals, a hauntingly romanticized portrait of violence and brutality, not as something beautiful to strive after but a lifestyle that’s alluring and seductive to the poverty-stricken, alienated and disenfranchised youth as the only means of survival in a society that ignores them and views them as lesser-than.
From ‘Leon’ to ‘Goodfellas’, it’s hard to deny that drugs make for an interesting ingredient in a film. As a horror fan, perhaps the most haunting use of drugs as a tool within the plot is in David Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers‘. Clearly, there is far more wrong with the Mantle twins than just some prescription drug abuse, but the drugs definitely put their psychological breaking into fast forward. Seeing how messy their lives get, and how much worse the drug abuse makes it all, is very upsetting to watch on screen.
It’s been sixteen years since the premiere of ‘The Wire‘ on HBO, and the passage of time has seen significant changes that can cast the show in an anachronistic light. Payphones? Land lines? Newspapers? Prestige SDTV? And where would social media fit into the show’s elaborate societal tapestry? And yet, the characters and world built into each episode, arc, and season appear so real, and so in keeping with the texture of a dilapidated Baltimore, it’s like no time has passed at all, and no evolution has occurred for so much of what is portrayed. I don’t think it’s especially profound to highlight ‘The Wire’ as the best drama about drugs or even one of the best and most peerless TV series made to date, but for me the show managed to be a potent drama about a gritty world, built to be deep and nuanced but lacking many of the conventions and cues that normally guide an audience through a story.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
The legend goes that whatever musicianship Sid Vicious wielded could be attributed to drugs, having taught himself bass guitar after an amphetamine-fueled night playing along with The Ramones’ debut album. Whether or not drugs truly contributed to his ascent, heroin was beyond any doubt responsible for Vicious’ fall, as chronicled in Alex Cox’s ‘Sid & Nancy‘. He attacked audience members. He carved “Gimme a fix” into his chest. After the Sex Pistols imploded, ‘Sid & Nancy’ portrays him as a hopeless, barely functional junkie, stumbling his way onto the stage just to scrape together enough cash for his next high. Most infamously, heroin played some kind of role in the fatal stabbing of girlfriend Nancy Spungen, whether Sid was in too much of a drug-addled haze to attempt to save her or if he himself attacked the woman he loved.
I suppose somebody ought to mention ‘Traffic‘ here. Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar winner about the War on Drugs may be a little didactic in places, and its overtly schematic color design hasn’t aged well, but the director masterfully juggles a lot of storylines while maintaining a steady tone that emphasizes the tragedy of the situation without overstepping into preachiness or overwrought theatrics. The movie doesn’t pretend to offer any answers about why America’s drug policies have failed so badly. All Soderbergh can do is point out the never-ending cycle of corruption, hypocrisy and hopelessness. It’s a very compelling movie, and sadly still relevant.
Remember, we’re not looking for comedies here. From either movies or TV, what are some of the best dramas you’ve seen on the subject of drugs?