Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, our lives abound in drugs. From pharmaceuticals to plants, uppers to downers, alcohol to cough syrup (no, this is not a shameless copy of Hunter S. Thompson), drugs are not going anywhere, and the notion of living drug free is increasingly becoming a childish fantasy. Of course, a good deal of the drugs we take help us; they help us so much and do it so well that many people have stopped seeing the drugs they take as drugs. Nevertheless, in spite of this rather broad definition, taking, consuming, ingesting, or shooting drugs is one of the most visceral things a human being can do.
Given their permanence and ubiquity, drugs have a long relationship with fiction and art. Since most drugs that have been glorified induce altered states of consciousness and awareness, artists have long turned to them for the betterment of their work. William Burroughs, the revered author of Naked Lunch, wrote all of his masterful novels (well, depending on your tastes) under the influence of heroin, and several of his narratives deal with excessive drug use and addiction. The drugs, for people of Burroughs’ ilk at least, not only inspire the artists and actively shape their aesthetics, but play crucial roles in the narratives. The drugs, in other words, afford different opportunities in narratives, playing crucial roles within. But you already know this.
It should be noted, however, that film is a special medium for depicting drug-addled characters and telling stories of drug addiction. The visceral act of consuming drugs does not necessarily translate onto the page. Yes, the written word is powerful at conveying the grim realities of drug use, but it tasks the reader too much, especially readers who have little exposure to real drug addiction. Film, though, enables the oftentimes shocking use of drugs to invade viewers’ minds. Scenes of intense drug use could shake unsuspecting viewers’ convictions, reducing them to the bedrock of their minds and leaving them with newfound appreciation or disgust for their choices with regard to drugs. Indeed, this visual obtrusion makes film the unparalleled medium for depicting drug use.
And there are manifold films that contain characters who are drug addicts. Like any sick person, the drug addict is a mutable type of character—sometimes plaintive and forlorn, other times dastardly and wicked, and still some are whimsical and funny. But addicts enthrall us because their addiction is not so different from any other type of sickness, and sickness is part of the human condition.
This list thus looks at ten classic drug addicts in film. These drug addicts range from the pitiful and corrupt to the endearing and hilarious. A note: this list looks at characters who are drug addicts and not actors who are drug addicts. Let us know your favourite drug-addled characters in film!
10 Wyatt and Billy—Easy Rider
It would be unfair to pick one over the other, so this pick celebrates both Wyatt and Billy, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively, from Dennis Hopper’s masterful classic, Easy Rider, a film about two counterculture hippies who ride from town to town on their motorcycles, doing drugs and cavorting with sundry characters. As free spirits who smoke lots of marijuana and frequently ingest LSD, Wyatt and Billy spark the ire of “conventional” Americans wherever they travel. The fact that they are pariahs wherever they go, however, exposes the lie at the heart of the American meta-narrative of freedom and opportunity; their enemies see them less as Americans exercising their “inalienable” rights than as threats to the wellness of society. Drugs in this film function as agents of distortion, giving Wyatt and Billy fleeting lapses of freedom in an otherwise oppressive society.
9 Harry Goldfarb—Requiem for a Dream
Perhaps no film on this list deals more solemnly with drug use than Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s graphic and cringe-inducing adaptation of Hubert Selby’s 1978 novel by the same name. Essentially, the film is about drug addiction in its various manifestations, but Harry Goldfarb’s descent is the most compelling and emotionally draining from the narrative. Throughout the film, heroin—how to get it and when to shoot it—dominates Harry’s thoughts, and he resorts to criminal acts to keep getting his fix. In the end, drugs undermine all the characters’ lives. Harry winds up with a badly infected arm from a dirty needle, but cannot stop himself from taking more heroin. In the end, Harry winds up in the hospital, where doctors amputate his arm—a shocking conclusion, indeed.
8 George Jung—Blow
Johnny Depp has starred as several characters that could have made this list, but his role as George Jung is decidedly apropos. Blow tells the true story of Jung, a man who made an immense amount of money smuggling cocaine into the US but also paid a heavy price. Indeed, the film depicts the mountainous highs (no pun intended) and abysmal lows of Jung’s life, a man who descended deep into cocaine addiction. Despite George’s untrammeled drug use, and how that affects his family, viewers pull for him throughout. This film deals soberly with cocaine (again, no pun intended) and its attendant effects.
Another film that does not shy away from the negative side of unrestrained drug use, Trainspotting is Danny Boyle’s fine adaptation of Irvine Welsh’ classic novel by the same name. Ewan McGregor plays Renton, the narrative’s central character and a heroin addict. Renton tries desperately to give up his drug habit, but his group of friends, who are likewise addicted, makes it hard for him to turn away from heroin. In the most poignant scene in the film, Renton and his friends wake up to one character’s hopeless wailing and find her clutching her dead baby, who died from neglect while they were all getting high. Things do turn around for Renton, though, as the film ends with him abandoning his drug-addicted friends and trying live a “clean” life.
6 Tony Montana—Scarface
Played by Al Pacino, Tony Montana is one of the most memorable characters in American cinema, and his aura of cool has been extolled by many wannabe gangsters since Scarface’s release. As a Cuban immigrant, Montana builds his criminal empire from the ground up, and he is ironically a testament to the myth of endless opportunity in America (“The world is yours,” anybody?). Montana’s newfound affluence and clout, however, go to his mind, and he eventually becomes a hard-core drug user. His explosive temper and extravagance eventually lead to his undoing, and in the penultimate scene of the film, Tony rises from drug-induced indolence and maniacally tries to shoot his way out of trouble, as his rival Sosa’s men have surrounded his estate. Sosa’s men kill Tony, thereby putting an end to his criminal empire.
5 Dan Dunne—Half Nelson
Played by the superb Ryan Gosling, Dan Dunne is the central character in Ryan Fleck’s 2006 film, Half Nelson. Dunne is an enigma, as he devotes a good deal of time to teaching and coaching the girl’s basketball team at his school, but wastes his downtime indulging in sordid activities and illicit drugs—most notably, crack cocaine. In a particularly bleak scene, Drey, one of Dunne’s students and a player for the basketball team, finds Dunne smoking crack in the bathroom. This piquant role reversal, of course, engenders a change in their relationship, and Dunne becomes less an imperturbable mentor than a peer for Drey. This film deals mirthlessly with drug use and its attendant effects, and Dunne’s drug-addled life is placed abreast of Drey’s troubles.
4 Dicky Ecklund—The Fighter
Another film on this list based on true events, The Fighter tells the story of a boxer’s struggle to make it in the ring and his equally hard struggle to prevent his brother from throwing his life away with drugs. Christian Bale plays Dicky Ecklund, the drug-addicted brother of Micky Ward. Bale’s performance is superb, and viewers really get the sense of a man who is on an inexorable path to his own demise. However, through the salubrious effect of training his brother who is on the cusp of greatness, Dicky vanquishes his drug addiction and devotes himself solely to training Micky. In this film, drugs serve as an impediment, one which Dicky must overcome in order to bask in the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
3 Dirk Diggler/Eddie Adams—Boogie Nights
Played by Mark Wahlberg, Eddie Adams is the protagonist from Paul Thomas Anderson’s classic about the adult film industry, Boogie Nights. After he is discovered, Eddie adopts the stage name “Dirk Diggler.” What ensues is a life full of sex, partying, and drugs, and Eddie indulges in all of it. Eventually, Eddie develops a serious addiction to cocaine, one which gets so bad that he cannot get an erection in one scene by virtue of the coke use. His hard-to-cast-off addiction leads Eddie down many sordid paths, but, in the end, he gets clean and returns to making films like the well-endowed star that he is.
2 Mia Wallace—Pulp Fiction
There are many words to describe Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but let’s stick with one: shocking. Despite the connectedness of the film’s events, it is made up of a series of self-contained vignettes. In one particular vignette, Marsellus Wallace asks John Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, to take his wife out on the town. Marsellus is the big crime boss, so Vincent feels compelled to accept. Uma Thurman plays the wife, Mia Wallace, a drug-addicted beauty who is anything but an easy date. After a night of carousing and cavorting with Vincent, Mia overdoses, mistaking heroin for cocaine. What ensues is Vincent’s frantic attempt to save Mia before she dies, and the episode ends with Vincent powerfully jabbing an adrenaline shot into Mia’s sternum—a visceral scene, to say the least.
1 Saul Silver—Pineapple Express
After so many plaintive drug-addicts on this list, it ends with a character who is whimsical and carefree: Saul Silver. Saul (James Franco) is an absent-minded and daft drug dealer who, like any big pot smoker, enjoys afternoon sitcoms with a bowl of fondue (typical, right?). When he and Dale Denton (Seth Rogan) accidentally become the targets of a dangerous crime boss, hilarious mayhem ensues. The two of them spend the film cavorting around town, smoking copious amounts of pot and developing a strong friendship in the process. This film makes pot, well, fun…