The 15 Best Films About Addiction
February 5, 2012 by Staff Writers
As one of the most painful and heart-wrenching of human experiences, addiction inherently provides a wealth of narratives creative types can constantly visit and revisit. Whether through film, writing, song, art, or other medium, the serious medical condition always comes bundled with swirling emotions for the affected and their loved ones alike. Even though the details inevitably differ from individual to individual, the agony and the ecstasy almost always remain the same.
The Lost Weekend (1945) dir. Billy Wilder
Because the addiction (and, sometimes, recovery) narrative arc has become so familiar to moviegoers, the beats legendary director Billy Wilder might seem clichéd to modern audiences. Considering its age, that does not dilute The Lost Weekend‘s power any. Ray Milland’s Don Birnam’s alcoholism drives wedges between him and his loved ones, and brief flirtations with sobriety only give way to more substance abuse.
Bigger Than Life (1956) dir. Nicholas Ray
Drug addiction as a result of chronic illness doesn’t always receive the same attention as the more "glamorous" habits, but this film covers how miracle cures might harm as much as they heal. Here, a family man with a most uncommon diagnosis grows dependent on the cortisone used to eradicate it, mirroring many of the real-life struggles painkiller addicts have to contend with. Even factoring out the physiological component, Bigger Than Life explores how easy it can be to grow psychologically dependent on a substance when it so successfully curbs horrendous physical torment. And, of course, the resultant isolation and other intense personal and interpersonal emotions.
Days of Wine and Roses (1962) dir. Blake Edwards
In the real world, many individuals wind up addicted to various substances because a friend, family member, or lover introduces them. In this tragic classic, the phenomenon receives a pretty thorough dissection through the narrative of an alcoholic slickster and his youthful paramour. Blending her love of sweets with his love of alcohol results in the two succumbing to mutually destructive decisions – even after marriage and birthing a daughter. Despite comedic moments, the movie quite explicitly details with everything from withdrawal to what 12-step programs entail.
Barfly (1987) dir. Barbet Schroeder
Based loosely on the life of author Charles Bukowski, Barfly also frankly depicts dysfunctional romantic relationships that sometimes coalesce around a mutual addiction. Alcoholism forms the core of central characters Henry and Wanda’s connection, and it lubricates their conversations as well as initiates their liaisons. A small thread of dark comedy weaves in and out of the story, particularly when a cat fight erupts over the male protagonist’s affections near the end. Neither main character wind up seeking help for their dependency, however, which adds an entirely different layer of tragedy to the story.
Less Than Zero (1987) dir. Marek Kanievska
More of an anti-drug PSA than fully objective glimpse into drug addiction, this film still receives plenty of accolades for its hardlined message. Following his first semester, a college boy returns home to discover his best friend screwing his ex-girlfriend and crippled beneath a serious cocaine dependency. A very broad adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel ensues, delving deeply into the upper middle class entitlement that once inspired kids to consider narcotics a sign of status and luxury rather than an honest physiological wrecker. Interestingly enough, many recovery programs show to enrollees as a springboard to getting them to analyze their own thoughts and behaviors.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989) dir. Gus Van Sant
Matt Dillon plays a desperate addict whose fixes come courtesy of drugstore and hospital holdups. A small, strange family forms as more join him and his wife on their heists, but a series of increasingly horrific scenarios leads him to try and kick the lifestyle once and for all. This obviously proves near impossible, as he already ingrained himself far too into it to just cut and run. Gus Van Sant never shies away from peeling away the grim and gritty reality of addiction and the desperation and tragedy that so often accompanies it.
Huozhe (1994) dir. Yimou Zhang
Addiction doesn’t just happen with substances, although the vast majority of movies on the subject emphasize alcohol and drugs. Huozhe, however, chooses to look into the destructive potential of growing a little (or a lot) too fond of gambling. China’s entire social, political, and economic structure shifts while a family loses everything to the patriarch’s obsession with betting everything – eventually forcing him and his wife to make some backbreaking choices.
Kids (1995) dir. Larry Clark
Name something, and the eponymous youth at the center of this controversial film are probably addicted to it. Based on the director’s photographic research about excessive drugs, alcohol, and sex amongst hedonistic teens, the brutal Kids explicitly looks at what happens when sociopaths grow too dependent on their own power. Most notably, one character with HIV delights in acting as virgins’ first times, eventually spreading the disease to innocent others. Because of the heavy adrenaline rush abuse and lying imbues him with, that’s why.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995) dir. Mike Figgis
In one of Nicolas Cage’s more down-to-earth roles, an alcoholic whose life entirely unraveled thanks to his habit heads off to Vegas with suicidal intentions. Wanting to drink until he dies of alcohol poisoning (or related complications associated with excess), the protagonist hooks up with a prostitute, with whom he forges a friendship of mutually assured destruction. Neither is allowed to criticize the other’s habit, which provides emotional comfort as well as no real incentive to get healthy or get out of danger.
Trainspotting (1996) dir. Danny Boyle
Fans of pitch-black comedy and punk sensibilities wanting to see the venerable device applied to drug usage might want to pick up Danny Boyle’s well-received contemporary classic of Scottish cinema. A simultaneous glimpse into heroin abuse and urban poverty, it follows one addict’s attempts to clean up his life, and the ugliness that inspires him to try and starts holding him back. Throughout, Ewan McGregor’s Renton proffers some insight into how ideologies railing against suburban conformity might pique addictive behaviors in some instances.
Requiem for a Dream (2000) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Requiem for a Dream is often touted as THE drug addiction movie – one parents want to show their kids about why shooting heroin and popping diet pills might not end up as glamorous or healing as they think. Alternating between four different individuals with four different motivations, Darren Aronofsky’s intense drama doesn’t end well, but it ends realistically, albeit at the grimmest possible ends. A much more effective (though, sadly, far less campy) deterrent than Reefer Madness, anyways.
Traffic (2000) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Unlike most movies covering the ins and outs of drug addiction, this one also analyzes the complexities behind producing and distributing in addition to how such substances impact the end user. Suffice to say, the way drugs land at their final destination is far, far more egregious than what happens to the people who actually consume them. More socially-conscious viewing audiences will appreciate how explicitly the human rights violations between shuttling cocaine, heroin, and the like back and forth come to light here.
Candy (2006) dir. Neil Armfield
An adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Luke Davies, Candy relays a romance where both partners love one another (almost) as much as they love heroin. Everything goes predictably awry, however, when the opiate eventually transubstantiates into the very core of their lives, forcing the both of them to resort to criminal activity. Only one winds up walking away, while the other continues nursing a neverending lust for fix after fix after heavenly hellacious fix.
A Scanner Darkly (2006) dir. Richard Linklater
Beloved cyberpunk author Philip K. Dick penned A Scanner Darkly as a reflection on the drug culture which absorbed him and the erratic mental illness what took him there. Although science-fiction, the book and the surrealistically rotoscoped film alike remain thematically grounded thanks to the writer’s personal experiences. The dystopian setting takes a grim look at the direction the failed drug war might very well go in if things do not change for the better.
Shame (2011) dir. Steve McQueen
David Duchovney’s and Tiger Woods’ dual sex addiction scandals brought the condition to the forefront, challenging how American society perceived the promiscuity it so often derides. The condition is, of course, nothing new – though it certainly seems that way considering the amount of current attention – but remains mostly uncharted territory in the cinematic world. With the amount of acclaim the explicit Shame and its boiling family drama has been receiving lately, that might not stay the trend for too much longer.