Sid and Nancy

Weekend Roundtable: Drug Dramas

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.

Deirdre Crimmins

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.

Brian Hoss

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.

Josh Zyber

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.

Your Turn

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?


  1. Being a Jack Ryan fan, ‘Clear and Present Danger’ is the first that comes to mind. I especially love the off-the-books operatives that hide out in the jungle and screw with the cartel’s operations.

  2. njscorpio

    Everyone needs to check out the Benedict Cumberbatch series ‘Patrick Melrose’ on Showtime. It is one of the best drug-related tv dramas I’ve seen, with excellent acting all around.

  3. Jon

    Requiem for a Dream is one of the most harrowing movies about drugs that I’ve ever seen.

    We screened the movie when I was in college and over the course of the runtime I kept bumping up the volume. By the climactic last five minutes it was almost ear piercingly loud. Afterwards the audience walked out in a stupor and nobody said a word….

  4. Maybe a stretch (nah, I’m pretty sure it’s a big stretch), but a shoutout to ‘Walk The Line’. Cash is addicted to a lot of pills before sobering up. What a great movie, with or without the drugs.

  5. First thing to come to mind is Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Not sure if that’s a drama or comedy though. I need to revisit, it’s been too long. I hope that lands on 4K, because in HD it was treat with all the bold colors. I can only expect it to be extra bonkers with HDR.

  6. photogdave

    Rush was the first movie I remember that had a seemingly realistic portrayal of undercover narcotics cops.
    On the other end of the spectrum is the original Bad Lieutenant, which is just totally insane.

  7. Bolo

    For an obvious classic, I’ve got to go with DePalma’s remake of ‘Scarface’. It’s got a lot of really funny parts and a strong satirical edge, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy in the Cheech ‘n Chong sense. I’m expecting it to hit 4K sometime soon, and look forward to picking it up.

    One that I think is underrated is the ‘Miami Vice’ movie. It didn’t seem to please most audiences. Everybody seemed to want it to be something else. A lot of people wanted a ’21 Jump Street’ style spoof. The mates I saw it with wanted more of a buddy cop action flick like ‘Bad Boys’ or ‘Rush Hour’. But I really dug the heavy tone and angsty characterization, not unlike ‘Sicario’.

    • njscorpio

      On a side note….is it just my imagination, or do film fans fall into two seperate camps, ‘Scarface’ fans and ‘Goodfellas’ fans? (FWIW, I’m the latter).

      • Josh Zyber

        I wasn’t aware there was a divide between those two movies. Goodfellas is pretty indisputably the better film, but Scarface is fun for what it is.

      • Bolo

        I would probably think there’s more debate between ‘Goodfellas’ versus ‘Godfather’. ‘Scarface’ never obtained the level of prestige those other two did, although it’s incredibly entertaining.

      • C.C.

        Scarface is pulp trash cinema. Fun – but not “great cinema”.
        Goodfellas is a masterpiece of filmmaking in every regard.

  8. Charles Contreras

    I gotta go with Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Sure, Stone took a lot of creative license regarding Jim Morrison, and I believe Val Kilmer was quoted as saying the film was about a lot of T&A (tits and acid), but it still makes for an interesting viewing. And you can’t beat the audio and visual presentation of it, either. I got the opportunity to meet Kilmer some years ago, had him sign my special edition box of The Doors, it was worth the hour wait in line. Oh, July 3 is the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, in case anyone was wondering on how I’ll be spending my evening!

  9. C.C.

    There no drama about drugs more hard htting than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
    an amazing work, that I could never stomach watching twice.

  10. More recently, Tom Cruise’s AMERICAN MADE is really entertaining. Don’t be turned off by the awful trailer for the film (I hope they fired the person that put it together) – the movie itself is quite good.

    • Bolo

      I’ve actually been meaning to rent that one. Liman’s usually pretty solid at keeping the pace up while still being able to build engagement in the characters.

  11. Chris B

    I’ll second the “Rush” contribution and follow it up with a “Narc” which is a great film also starring Jason Patric about the horrors of drug addiction and one of the best cop movies ever made. Still waiting for a North American Blu ray all these years later….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *