Today: May 27, 2024

Drugs On Film

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario – on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms from February 1st – is a visceral, unflinching portrayal of the war against drugs.  Critically lauded and impossible to tear your eyes away from, the film goes deep into the politics and the tensions that define a global problem. However it’s by no means the first film to examine the cause and effect of getting high..

Sicario (2015)
With films like Incendies and Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve had already marked himself out as a director with something to say. With Sicario, he goes one further by accusing all sides in the war on drugs of being as morally culpable. Emily Blunt delivers a blistering turn as an initially naive FBI agent sucked into – and unceremoniously spat out of – the never-ending stand-off between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It’s the BAFTA-nominated Benicio Del Toro, though, who really shines as a gun-for-hire with his own unique insight into a socio-political landscape blighted by the cartels responsible for ruining his happiness. Essential, unnerving and almost unbearably tense stuff.

Traffic (2000)
Steven Soderbergh diverted his gaze to the war on drugs back in 2000 with a convoluted, considered and riveting look at just how complicated the situation is. Traffic stars Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Don Cheadle and that man Del Toro (again) in a layered affair that examines everyone from the cartel members through to a prominent high court judge who realises his daughter isn’t just smoking cigarettes behind the bike sheds. At the time, the film was congratulated for examining the issue and, 15 years later, while Villeneuve’s film may seem more incisive and nuanced perhaps that’s simply because the world has changed so drastically since Soderbergh lensed Traffic?

Pusher (2012)
Nicholas Winding Refn produces a remake of his own film (originally a 1996 Danish thriller starring Zlatko Buric) which follows a London-based drug dealer whose life spirals out of control following the seizure of his cocaine supply and his attempts to raise the cash to repay his unforgiving supplier. Brendan Coyle delivers a career-best performance as the unlucky dealer trapped in a spiral of violence that is hard to tear your eyes away from. Also showing up for the ride are Paul Kaye and go-to tough guy/nasty piece of work Mem Ferder.

Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s
unutterably bleak examination of what being a drug addict actually means arguably vies with Trainspotting for making taking drugs look like just the worst thing ever. The film follows Jared Leto’s drug-addicted waster, his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly, definitely not behaving in a way Hoggle would approve of) and friend Marlon Wayans as they do whatever they can to maintain their destructive habits. Limbs, dignity and futures are lost in the most horrifying fashion. But it is the film’s more domestic drug abuse – the diet pill addiction Ellen Burstyn develops as a direct result of her loneliness – that perhaps hits home the hardest in a film that leaves most audiences staring at the floor and determined never to take a painkiller ever again.

Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013)
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Oscar-winning drama is about a very different side of the drugs trade. Matthew McConaughey’s breathtaking physical transformation into the stick-thin and dangerously ill Woodruff arguably took some focus away from what is nevertheless a remarkable film, but after years of fluffy rom-coms, who can blame him for wanting to get noticed? The film itself is a different flavour of drug movie with the Woodruff’s ‘dealer’ painted as a hero who starts playing the system to supply AIDS patients with the drugs they desperately need. The anti-Pusher, if you will…

Blow (2001)
There’d be no war on drugs, of course, if there wasn’t a consumer demand for the Bolivian Marching Powder and its variants. Blow examines the life and times of one George Jung, the man single-handedly credited with establishing the cocaine market in America in the 1970s. It’s also one of the last times Johnny Depp delivered a ‘straight’ before taking a decade’s worth of roles that gradually turned him into a caricature artist. Penelope Cruz provides able support as Jung’s complicit wife enjoying the spoils of the drugs trade. The cast is rounded out by Run, Lola, Run’s Franka Potente and Ray Liotta – an actor with a wealth of experience when it comes to playing shady characters who take a salary from South America…

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Darren Aronofsky might have created the ultimate bleak modern morality tale in Requiem For A Dream but Gus Van Sant was ploughing that furrow years before with the criminally underrated Drugstore Cowboy. Setting its examination of addiction in the 1970s, this drama stars a never-better Matt Dillon as a small-town drifter who, along with his girlfriend (Kelly Lynch) passes from town to town with the sole intention of hitting local drugstores after hours for a fix. Straightforward in its examination of our not unsympathetic anti-heroes, the film still has a powerful emotional left hook and its subsequent themes of isolation and societal segregation remain a rich vein in Van Sant’s subsequent films.

Trainspotting (1996)
Until Danny Boyle’s seminal Trainspotting came along (by way of Irvine Welsh’s equally important novel), British depictions of drug abuse had mostly been left to Hooray Henries hoovering up the white stuff or Sherlock Holmes knocking back a bit of opium. Oh and Zammo from Grange Hill… Okay so that’s not entirely true, but it is fair to say most movie audiences had never seen drug addiction done like this before. With career-defining turns from Ewan Macgregor, Robert Carlisle and Jonny Lee Miller, the film is at once a jet black comedy and a heart-breaking drama with characters you root for no matter what. A zeitgeist moment that arguably changed cinema forever.

Sabotage (2014)
Who says that all films about drugs need to be considered dramas with something to say? Sabotage took that particular rule book and tore it up as part of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie star rehab plan following his tenure as a politician. As John ‘Breacher’ Wharton, the Austrian Oak has never been more grizzled or more morally grey as he plays a DEA agent who has to figure out who’s killing his team of crooked compatriots after their pension plan drugs haul goes AWOL. And Then There Were None with added narcotics and pyrotechnics, then, and hugely entertaining for it!

Honourable Mentions: Goodfellas, The Departed (and any other gangster film that happens to feature drugs), Studio 54, Party Monster, Casino and any film about rampant hedonism that happens to include drugs.

SICARIO is out on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms from February 1st, 2016, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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