Hollywood likes drama—and there’s nothing more dramatic than substance abuse, right? The character trope of the drug-addicted and/or alcoholic pity mobile has been used so much that anyone who has ever gone through the struggles of addiction and relapse can only roll their eyes at this melodramatic cliché.
Let’s face it. Hollywood isn’t the most reliable source for substance abuse accuracy. Not every high gets the pupils dilated and not every addict is suffering from some extreme case of the jitters. It’s been a long running trend of stereotypes in the media, but all is not lost. There are some films out there that stay true to the nature of their addictions.
This is a list of some of the most realistic substance abuse scenes presented through Hollywood film. Whether it captures the nature of the high and the crashes of the low or the repercussions of the character’s actions, these films truly give a glimpse to viewers foreign to the addiction world what the drama is all about.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Based on the autobiographical novel by James Fogle, Drugstore Cowboy follows the story of Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) as he and his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), along with their two drug-addicted friends, manage clever heists to rob pharmacies and hospitals to constantly get high. Their insatiable quench for prescription drugs and heroin leads to one addict overdosing, which prompts Bob’s attempt to go straight, but this is harder than it sounds.
Bob decides to get a fix in the car while his wife drives, which pisses her off—not because he’s getting high, but because he’s getting high without her. As the heroin enters his bloodstream, Bob narrates in poetic fashion the deep, mellow embrace of the high taking over.
Heroin makes him feel chill, puts him at peace, brings Bob into a pastoral fantasy as cows and drugs float before his eyes in his daydreams. He’s not thinking about anything else in his life; not the robberies, not his misery, not the fact that everything is falling apart around him—only to be disrupted by Dianne’s shouts at traffic. The spell is broken and the fantasy is gone.
The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Another film based off an autobiographical work, The Basketball Diaries is an adaptation of Jim Carroll’s juvenile diaries. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jim shows promising talent on his school’s basketball team, but after finding out that his best friend has been diagnosed with cancer and that the other boys on the basketball team are being abused by their coach, he falls into a downward spiral as he seeks solace in heroin.
Jim’s desperate. He needs money. Nothing much, just five or twenty dollars tops. Heroin’s cheap like that. And even though he’s been stealing and prostituting himself for a quick buck for an equally as quick fix, Jim needs more money.
So he goes to his mother and begs.
She won’t let him in, though. Even as he says he’ll be a good boy. Even while he curses at her to give him money because he’s her son. Even while he sobs at the door, hands stretched out to her, she does not give in. It breaks her heart, but she can’t. If Jim has any hope to get better, this needs to end now.
And so she calls the police.
So maybe Hollywood has a slight fixation on heroin addiction. What can you do? It’s a very seductive drug and looks great on camera, but anyway.
Trainspotting takes place in the city of Edinburgh, located in Scotland, where Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his band of fellow heroin-addict buddies run amuck in the town. To be fair, Renton is trying to give up heroin, but he finds himself repeatedly relapsing with horrible consequences following each hit. One of his friend’s baby daughter dies as he and others were getting high, totally unaware of it all. It seems no matter how many rock bottoms Renton discovers, there’s a new low to reach each time.
Even though he entered a Drug Interventions Programme, Renton still seeks out another fix, the lifelong struggle he’ll no doubt have to face. He needs a hit, just one more, “to get over this long, hard day.” So if he needs a quick fix-me-up, he’s got to go to Mother Superior, his drug dealer, and the man delivers.
Perhaps a little too much, though.
As the viewer follows the injection of the heroin into his vein and up to his head, Renton begins to quake uncontrollably as he falls six feet under into an overdose. By the quick response of his drug dealer, he is taken to the hospital as both sirens and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” plays in the background. Ah yes, a perfect day to almost die.
It’s a bit haunting to hear the lyrics, “You just keep me hanging on,” as adrenaline gets stabbed into Renton’s system to revive him.
Perhaps one day he’ll realize heroin wasn’t the savior in that moment.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Now, while some films focus on the descent into the darkness that is addiction, Rachel Getting Married narrates the struggles one faces when trying to climb out of it. Despite the happy connotations with weddings, the story follows Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway), who was released from a drug rehab for a few days to attend her sister’s wedding. Trouble looms as her presence becomes the center of attention instead of the bride, leading to family tension and the giant elephant in the room to finally burst.
Coming back home is nothing but a constant reminder to Kym of the Incident, when she had accidentally driven off a bridge while intoxicated and drowned her younger brother in the process. She confronts her mother (Debra Winger) about this, asking why her mother ever left her in charge of her younger sibling, letting a drug addict take care of a child.
This is something that plagues them both; guilt for Kym and regret for her mother.
“You were good with him,” her mother says. “I didn’t expect you to kill him.”
The rage and sorrow overwhelms them both as they fight, slapping one another in the face. As the true emotions shed light for Kym, she runs away, reliving her mistakes and purposefully crashes her car in a road sign. She won’t stop driving until something or someone stops her.
It’s safe to say you can always trust a film with Denzel Washington. In Flight, Washington plays William “Whip” Whitaker, a commuter pilot who normally flies from Orlando to Atlanta every day. He is an alcoholic, constantly drinking before and during flight. On one particular flight, Whip wakes up to extreme turbulence and is just seconds from crashing the plane, but by some miracle and his own remarkable skillset, Whip manages to land the airplane, saving two-thirds of the passengers onboard.
However, all is not glory for this hero. Tests by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show that Whip was intoxicated while flying, prompting severe questioning of his license and career as a pilot.
Whether the plausibility of an intoxicated pilot being allowed onboard a plane is shaky, what’s not as shaky is whether an alcoholic will abuse a hotel room’s mini-bar.
The night before his NTSB hearing, Whip is checked into a hotel room without any alcohol to keep from drinking, but all proves futile when he discovers the room next door is unlocked and the mini-bar is stocked. You can tell he knows he shouldn’t drink as he gazes at all the single-serving bottles, but the temptation settles in.
The next morning, Whip’s friend and lawyer find a trashed hotel room and a pathetic pilot sprawled out on the bathroom floor. The hearing is in one hour and with nowhere else to turn, it seems Whip’s cocaine dealer is the emergency contact they’re forced to call.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
While Killing Them Softly isn’t strictly about addiction, it does feature one of the more accurate heroin high scenes ever put on film. A neo-noir crime plot at its core, the film features amateurs Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who are hired by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob a Mob-protected poker game and successfully do so, throwing the criminal economy over its head. Furious, an enforcer named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is hired by the Mob to lay down order.
While some films tend to reflect the mental state of getting high, Killing Them Softly presents a scene where Russell, a heroin addict, decides to shoot up while telling a story to Frankie.
Viewers then get a glimpse of what it’s like trying to talk to someone who’s high off heroine, trying to follow the scattered story Russell details. The guy is so jacked that he fades in and out of the conversation, stopping mid-sentence as the mellow high takes over, stunning him into silence and absence of thought.
Yet even in the bits and pieces of Russell’s story, Frankie is desperate to get the truth out of Russell, even as his friend drowns in slow-motion and can no longer grasp onto what he’s saying or thinking.