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Five Heroin Movies

Movies About Heroin That Attempt to Portray Addiction

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Updated April 09, 2012

Drug abuse and addiction often pop up in movies, typically to add a touch of glamour and danger to the story. But for these five movies, the film-makers try to show what heroin addiction is really like -- with varying success and believability.

1. Trainspotting

This daring 1990s movie made Ewan McGregor's acting career as the lead character, a heroin addict from Glasgow. The premise of the movie is summed up in the narrator's account of why he chose the life of a heroin addict -- as an alternative to the empty consumerism and materialism that his culture offered as something to strive for.

In my view, Trainspotting is unsurpassed in getting across the allure of heroin addiction, as well as the ugly, smelly, discomfort of heroin withdrawal. Rather than a life of excitement, heroin addiction is portrayed as part of a rather dull, banal existence, with few outlets for frustration and little to no opportunity for advancement. I imagine it would be hard to remain judgemental after watching this one.

2. The Man With the Golden Arm

Frank Sinatra plays a heroin addict in this 1950s movie about a professional gambler who has recently been released from jail and wants to start over in a life free of addiction. Giving in to peer pressure, he resumes both gambling and heroin addiction.

Yet he is determined to quit, and a strong effort is made to portray heroin withdrawal as he quits cold turkey. Eventually, he is successful in his recovery, and starts a new life with a supportive partner.

While it seems melodramatic now, this movie has to be seen in the context of the time it was made -- drug addiction was not well understood, and Hollywood was in its infancy, and still highly influenced by the theatre. As a sympathetic portrayal of an addict, this was a controversial film.

3. Sid and Nancy

Set in the punk era of the 1970s, Sid and Nancy is based on the real life story of Sid Vicious, bass player for the Sex Pistols, and his groupie girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Both were addicted to heroin, as were many of their friends and social contacts.

Emphasizing the destructive nature of their addicted lifestyle, leading to their early and violent deaths, this movie may be hard for many to relate to. There is little that I could grasp in terms of why the characters behaved the way they did, driven not only by intense addiction, but also the punk lifestyle and ethos of indifference and aggression towards the world and the self, and the pressures of fame and celebrity. But would this deeply depressing movie deter anyone from drug use?

4. Traffic

In one of several intertwined storylines, a drug czar's daughter develops heroin addiction, putting her father, played by Michael Douglas, in a terrible conflict of interest between work and family -- eventually choosing to support his daughter over the "war on drugs" agenda of his political position. This movie is important in demonstrating how drugs can affect people of all walks of life, and family members are affected in myriad ways by the addiction of a loved one.

5. Permanent Midnight

A-list dynamic duo Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson give heroin addiction the slick Hollywood treatment in this late 1990s dark comedy based on the autobiography of writer Jerry Stahl, who worked on 1980s series Thirtysomething and Moonlighting. The movie documents his progress from medication addiction to heroin addiction, to methadone, then on to crack cocaine and the highly addictive painkiller, Dilaudid.

Insightfully, his childhood trauma is connected both to his work as a writer and to the angst underlying his addiction. The catastrophic effects that his drug use has on his work life and relationships is something many could relate to, and as usual, Stiller manages to come across as simulataneouly hedonistic, pathetic and human.

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