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Five Movies About Addiction

We’re humans, and we’re weak and vulnerable. And some of us are wired in such a way that when we find something that gives us a lift or a rush or a high, we need to keep that feeling going, even doing so makes other areas of life much worse. Regardless of whether you view addiction as a disease or a moral failing, it’s something that has the potential, directly or indirectly, to affect everyone.

Trainspotting (1996) 

Heroin addiction is horrible, to be sure, and trying to make your way in life when you’ve got no money and no prospects makes the future seem entirely unmanageable. But boy oh boy, does Trainspotting make that life seem exciting! Danny Boyle’s breakout film is eminently watchable, refreshing, with a non-stop infectious energy — and a killer soundtrack as a great bonus. It’s compelling, despite the fact that the characters, while exciting and pretty, are mostly shallow and unsympathetic.

I was conflicted because even though Renton and his crew are largely amoral degenerates, I kinda sorta wished I was out there scoring with them. That’s the genius of Trainspotting; even though using drugs is unequivocally a bad choice, it’s still fun while you’re using, right? It’s like that Louis C.K. bit — “Drugs are a perfect solution for every problem you have right now. Drugs are so fucking good that they’ll ruin your life.” Trainspotting has the confidence to be subversive and show us that aspect of addiction.

Requiem for a Dream (2000) 

In many ways, Requiem for a Dream is the flip side of the addiction coin. Whereas Trainspotting is a music video, Requiem for a Dream is an uncompromising tragic opera. Just like TrainspottingRequiem tells the story of a group of young adults (plus a mother) struggling to deal with their addictions. But here the feeling of dread hits you like punch to the stomach, from the very first scene. Requiem is a horror show, and making things even more of a downer is that no one around the main characters is remotely interested in helping or doing anything besides supporting or taking advantage of the addictions.

The filming style and camera techniques (quick edits, split screens, and the SnorriCam) never give us a break. It’s a steady, never-ending, spiral downward — like a Shepard Risset glissando. And speaking of audio, the now-iconic soundtrack by Clint Mansell (as performed by the Kronos Quartet) disorients, agitates, almost puts us into a drug-like trance alongside our anti-heros.

This isn’t a story with a happy ending; this is addiction. Watching Requiem for a Dream is a harsh experience, so you may choose this version instead:



Rush (1991) 

When society as a whole decides that addiction is now a big enough problem for everyone, law enforcement priorities are usually to go after the drug dealers that supply the addicts. After all, without the available supply, it would be much harder for addicts to maintain their addictions. But like with any successful criminal enterprise, the more power a drug dealer has, the more likely they are to protect and insulate themselves. The work of undercover officers is necessarily dangerous, but sometimes it’s the only thing that stands a chance of bringing the dealers to justice.

Rush tells the story of two cops (played by Jason Patric and the always-awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh) who go DEEP undercover to take down the local drug kingpin. They make numerous drug buys in an effort to get closer to the drug boss, but become drug users themselves. The clear message is that no one is immune from becoming an addict, even those who are sworn to getting rid of the problem. And once you’re hooked, don’t count on coming back from it in one piece.

The Lost Weekend (1945) 

While most movies about addiction deal with the hardest of drugs, one of the best in the genre concerns the most socially acceptable drug of all. The Lost Weekend still packs a dramatic punch, even more than 70 years after it was released. Don Birnam is an alcoholic, but unlike what we often see on film, Don isn’t trying to get better. He’s not trying to overcome or learn to live with his addition, he’s just looking to get drunk. (A note on why I chose to include The Lost Weekend on this list over Leaving Las VegasLeaving Las Vegas isn’t about the ongoing addiction — it’s about someone who’s already given up, and is simply looking to end it all.)

The Lost Weekend shows us how an addict will destroy not only themselves, but harm everyone close to them as well. Of course, given the era in which the movie was made, The Lost Weekend doesn’t resolve Don’s story quite as harshly or unequivocally as Leaving Las Vegas or Requiem for a Dream. Still, it’s a pretty harsh reality, and it’s every bit as watchable and powerful today.

Don Jon (2013) 

People can argue over whether “porn addiction” is truly an addiction, but it’s undeniable that watching too much of the stuff can negatively impact your life. Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leads a simple but honest life in New Jersey. He has plenty of sexual partners, but still derives his greatest pleasure from pornography because that’s the only way he can truly “lose himself.” (This revelation immediately reminded me of Barry [Aaron Eckhart] in the misanthropic but insightful Your Friends & Neighbors.)

Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), his ideal of the perfect woman. As their relationship develops, Barbara demands that Jon better himself, including giving up his porn habit. As he struggles to remake himself, he meets a woman who helps him understand what his life is really missing.

Porn addiction might not harm a person’s body to the same degree as heroin or booze, but it certainly has the potential to impact a person’s ability to relate to others. Don Jon is a one-note story, but the note is played well enough that the viewing experience is worth the time.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.