Since the dawn of cinema, drug addiction has frequently been portrayed on the big screen, offering the movie-going public a dramatized insight into the dark underbelly of the world they live in.
From troubled musicians, to petty criminals, and strung-out ordinary people, heroin has often been used as a dramatic tool in storytelling to highlight self-destruction – the inner demons and struggles of our characters, which back them into a corner, offering them the closest possible thing to a real-world devil with which they must wrestle or succumb.
It’s a recurring theme, and one that still enthralls us as the viewer.
Could it be as simple as an observation of the unsightly? Some sympathy for the traumatic human struggle this imagery evokes?
Or could it even be something darker?
Some voyeuristic way of experiencing a dangerous lifestyle that deviates from what society considers normal and respectable?
Whatever the reason, it’s a trope that is here to stay, and to best examine this, here is our pick for the top five movies surrounding heroin.
Set in Edinburgh and Leith, this Danny Boyle-directed satirical classic is based on the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, which takes a comical yet true to life look at the trials and tribulations of heroin addicts.
Captivating a generation, and a perfect time capsule for the music, fashion, counterculture, and society of the mid 90s, we would be remiss not to mention Trainspotting, in all its warts-and-all glory.
Focused on the exploits of Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner), three Scottish heroin addicts in their late twenties with no direction or desire in life other than the next fix, the film sees them aspiring for “better”, in the form of integrating back into society.
After brushes with overdose, complications with AIDS, and trouble with the law, the film culminates in a botched heroin deal that sees Renton and Spud betraying the rest and taking the spoils for themselves.
Sid & Nancy (1986)
Following the trials and tribulations of heroin-addicted Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) on their 1978 move to the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
With the seminal punk band having imploded as a result of its own chaotic aura, and a doomed US tour in 1978, addicts Sid & Nancy move to New York to launch a solo career, ingratiating themselves with the thriving New York scene, and rubbing shoulders with fellow famous addicts Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone.
Everything might have been alright, if not for the fateful day of 12th October 1978, when the NYPD were called to the Chelsea Hotel, finding Nancy dead from fatal stab wounds.
With a clueless Sid taken into custody, followed by a release on bail, and his own untimely death by overdose at the age of 21, the case remains unsolved to this day.
And despite numerous conspiracy theories, and the film’s own dramatized finale (where the troubled couple engage in a fatal drug-fuelled confrontation), no one really knows what happened in that hotel room, except Sid & Nancy.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s seminal movie perfectly captured the hopelessness, trauma, and regret of addiction, when it was released to audiences in 2000.
Focused on the intertwined lives of heroin addicts Harry (Jared Leto), Tyrone (Marlon Wayons), and Marion (Jennifer Connelly), as well as Harry’s fame-hungry, pill addicted mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), Requiem shows with darkness, misery, and unscathing clarity, the horrors of addiction and obsession.
Showing addiction, overdose, sexual abuse, amputation, and amphetamine psychosis, all amidst a hazy swirl of severe mental illness, Requiem paints the reality of addiction with gritty, unflinching detail.
The Dirt (2019)
During the 1980s, the exploits of LA rock band Motley Crue were things of legend, with most of the band experiencing the side effects of addiction.
Jeff Tremaine’s (of Jackass fame) adaptation shows the highs and lows of the band members, showing their brushes with drugs (bassist Nikki Sixx’s well-documented heroin addiction), the law (singer Vince Neil’s arrest for causing death by dangerous driving), break-ups (drummer Tommy Lee’s tumultuous split from actress Heather Locklear), and illness (guitarist Mick Mars’ battle with a degenerative bone disease), as they reach the highest heights of the rock and roll pantheon.
For a portrayal that shows the fun and folly of addiction, with a rocking soundtrack, Hollywood celebrity stories, and a fourth wall-breaking rockumentary style, then The Dirt might be the one for you.
Born To Be Blue (2016)
This 2016 film, directed by Robert Budreau, tells the true story of famed jazz singer Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) as he navigates fame, violence, and heroin addiction, as he enters the world of jazz music.
After receiving a beating in 1966, resulting in him losing several teeth (and thus his ability to play the trumpet), Baker drifts slowly deeper into addiction, something he would wrestle with for the rest of his life, even after retraining his “embouchure”, taking back the trumpet, and enjoying a renewed success in the 70s.
Though this film is a dramatization, which admits it bends the truth, the real Chet Baker lived a troubled life, dying in 1988 at the age of 58 following an apparent fall from the balcony of his second-floor apartment in Amsterdam.
Truly, if there is one film that portrays the melancholy sadness of addiction, depression, and talent lost, the Born To Be Blue is the one to watch.
From addled musicians, to criminals, to desperate people on the fringe of society, these films show the dizzying highs, horrible lows, and chaotic in-betweens of heroin addiction.
And whether you have an interest in the music, subject matter, or the dark and varied human experience these films portray, there is undoubtedly something on this list for you.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our post on ‘Movies About The Arctic‘.
- Where Was Tombstone Filmed? - May 12, 2022
- Where Was Patton Filmed? - May 12, 2022
- Where Was Safe Haven Filmed? - May 12, 2022