DRUG ABUSE IN FILM: THE IMPORTANCE OF HUMANISING, NOT DEMONISING, ADDICTS

Ewan McGregor as Renton in Trainspotting

We are used to seeing drug abuse glamorised in the media – from Hollywood celebrities throwing extravagant parties and sniffing cocaine to rappers bragging about being rich and taking pills, but the topic of addiction and the reflection of people’s reasoning to partake is more important now than ever. Drug abuse and addiction is spoken about and experienced by celebrities and everyday people, making it seriously relevant and cause for concern at this time. Expressing these problems and keeping the conversation around it alive and present isn’t easy, however, some creators can give this topic the depth it needs to captivate their audience and strike a chord.

Film is such an intriguing medium as it can be used as a window into someone else’s life, the average person like you or me, and explore these issues that many of us face. Various films touch on occasional experimental drug use, coming of age stories like The Perks of Being a Wallflower where Charlie has a weed brownie (unknowingly) but many don’t dive so deep as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream. These portrayals go above and beyond to tell stories of true hardships and explore the nature of addiction.

Set in the dog days of the Tory government, Trainspotting follows a very atypical group to be portrayed in cinema; ‘underclass’ heroin addicts in an economically depressed area of Edinburgh. Renton, our antihero, discusses those who partake as doing it simply for the pleasure, “take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, times it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near”. When you’re a junkie all you need to worry about is scoring as opposed to paying bills, having a relationship, being a functioning member of society – this rejection of society’s norms could be a reflection of the youth culture at the time. Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of the same name was created at a time where the presence of nostalgia, consumption and this idea of a lost generation was apparent. This being said, Renton still attempts to quit – after his ‘final hit’ he has aggressive diarrhoea in the ‘worst toilet in Scotland’, fully disclosing and reminding the audience how unglamorous drugs can be.

Drug abuse is never without tragedy, and Trainspotting is a harsh portrayal of the pain it causes – most harrowing of which is Allison’s baby Dawn dying due to neglect, met with her begging Renton for a hit to suppress the pain. Taking heroin is now portrayed as self-destructive and a form of escapism from reality, similarly with Tommy who starts to partake after a breakup and loses his life to AIDS through the sharing of needles – this all allows the group to reflect on the severity of their actions. They’re fully aware of the damage it can cause.

Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream explores four different characters battles with addiction, desire and a pursuit of a dream – similarly to Trainspotting it closely follows heroin junkies doing what they can to score and the tragedy their addiction causes. However, the parallel story of Sara Goldfarb, mother of one of the addicts, is heartbreaking. After her husband passes, she becomes obsessed with being on a television game show and begins to take uppers to lose weight, attempting to live up to society’s standards. This portrayal of addiction to prescribed drugs removes the binary conventions of good and bad drugs and allows us to think deeper into what causes addiction. This technique almost normalises drug addiction, travelling from heroin (one of the most addictive illegal drugs ever) to diet pills which anyone can access over-the-counter. Requiem for a Dream makes you question the difference between these two addictions, and re-evaluate how the addicts themselves appear in your eyes. The heroin addicts are immediately deemed more sinful and the lonely house-wife is pitied, even though they are all suffering from the same illness. The fairness of this evaluation is challenged.

Sara takes the pills so she can live in her own fantasy, stopping her from facing true reality and coming to terms with how lonely she has become. Her fix has become a companion, a friend – her addiction caused by isolation and her desperation to feel valued and surrounded by love and approval, all of which she is lacking. Her reliance on the pills to ignore reality is destructive and pushes her further away from real people, making it harder to connect. All characters end up losing something due to their addiction – a relationship, a limb, their sanity – leaving them an empty shell of their former selves.

These are the groups in society that people do not wish to be reminded of and are pushed aside, however, the issues raised through these stories are painfully relevant and help to reduce stereotypes of those who become reliant on drugs. These films all humanise addicts by telling the realness of drug abuse through the most captivating characters, a sobering reminder of the heartache it causes. Drug abuse is used to fill a void in your life due to feeling discontent or lacking hope in reality but these films help bring awareness to these matters – don’t let your fix become a friend.


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