• Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in 'Breaking Bad'. (AMC)Source: AMC
From the resonant to the just wrong... how Hollywood deals with drug use.
Evan Valletta

20 Feb 2018 - 3:54 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2018 - 3:54 PM

SBS does not endorse or advocate illegal drug taking, or condone the possession or supply of prohibited substances. In keeping with the spirit of Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, this story is intended to educate and inform readers about the effects of drug use and was written from one person's perspective.


Substance use and abuse on screen is a difficult thing to get right. The effort to balance realism and dramatic effect – plus whatever practical considerations a shoot my face – can render a portrayal inaccurate or even irresponsible. Too often, scenes involving drugs and alcohol fall to hyperbole, resulting in potentially harmful glamourisation or minimisation.

Here are some examples of when filmmakers got it right – and when they got it wrong…


Henry Hill’s cocaine-fuelled paranoia in Goodfellas

Plot: Based on the true crime novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese’s masterwork charts the rise and fall of New York Mafioso, Henry Hill.

The drug use: Hill, battling a cocaine addiction while dealing huge amounts of the stuff, drives around in the throes of paranoia – his senses overloaded and his concept of time tangled. 

Why it worked: Not only does Ray Liotta, as Hill, nail the wide-eyed, paranoid time bomb that is the coke addict, but Scorsese covers the sequences as if his cinematographer and editor were suffering from the same affliction. The audience doesn’t merely witness Hill the cocaine fiend, we're forced into his headspace.


Jesse Pinkman’s brain zaps in Breaking Bad

Plot: After an overqualified high-school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer, he teams up with a former student-cum-drug dealer to make money for his family by cooking the purest meth known to man. 

The drug use: Post meth-binge, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) experiences frightening side effects known as ‘brain zaps’.

Why it worked: As Jesse nurses his meth-ridden brain, a series of jump-cuts – each one accompanied by glitchy sound effect - perfectly capture the experience of chemically sparked brain tremors (those who’ve been on anti-depressants may have some idea of this awful sensation).


Larry David argues with himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Plot: Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, strolls around Los Angeles while his neuroses and lack of tact gets him into every kind of trouble imaginable.

The drug use: After scoring some weed for his glaucoma-plagued father and being pressured into smoking some, Larry ends up arguing with the bathroom mirror.

Why it worked: Fictional Larry straddles the line between the honest self-reflection and unnecessary overthinking that is so common to irregular weed users. It’s exaggerated, but truthful at its core.


Bubbles gets clean in The Wire

Plot: With particular focus on the illicit drug trade in the broken machine of Baltimore, Maryland, intersecting institutions continue to fight a battle with no clear end. 

The drug use: For a show that goes as deep as possible into the drug world, depictions of actual drug use are infrequent. But the handful of scenes depicting intravenous heroin use,  particularly involving Bubbles (Andre Royo) and those in his orbit, are the definition of heartbreaking.

Why it worked: Neither glamourising nor begging for our sympathy, The Wire shows users for exactly what they are through exactly what they do, and reveals them to be stray souls injecting heroin to keep debilitating sickness at bay, chasing the numbness of half-sleep.


Jumping on the wagon in Everything Must Go

Plot: After an alcoholic’s wife kicks him and all his belongings out of the house, he sets up a temporary home-slash-garage sale on the front lawn.

The drug use: Ferrell’s character drinks from sunrise to bedtime, every day of the week.  Towards the end of the film, he gives up the booze.

Why it didn’t work: Whether it was the fault of the screenplay, or Ferrell’s performance, or both, the film omitted almost all of the realities of alcoholism. Ferrell mopes around and swigs beer and mopes around some more, showing none of the physical symptoms of addiction, even after sobering up. Considering withdrawal from long-term alcohol abuse can be painful for many, and life-threatening for some, it’s a shame that this otherwise decent film dodged reality in order to maintain its light tone. 


Requiem for a Dream needs a fact-check 

Plot: Explores the lives of four individuals, and their addictions to heroin, cocaine and diet pills. Stars Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Ellen Burstyn.

Drug use: To highlight the cycle of addiction, director Darren Aronofsky repeats a 'fix' montage of each stage of the process, from the push of the syringe, to the dilation of the user’s pupils. 

Why it didn’t work: Aronofsky definitely communicates the dangers of drug abuse, but the film falls to glaring factual inaccuracies. From the minor (the pupils of a heroin addict do not dilate during a fix) to the perplexing (Harry continues to inject into an infected vein until he loses an arm, despite having plenty of other noticeable veins from which to choose).


Crack is just like any other party drug in The Wolf of Wall Street

Plot: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the (real-life) scamming stockbroker who relished in all forms of excess until the FBI caught up with him.

The drug use: Belfort’s business associate, Donnie (Jonah Hill) gifts his boss some crack cocaine. They escape to the bathrooms to enable the initially drug-wary Belfort can take his first hit.

Why it didn’t work: Before Belfort has even finished exhaling, the animal inside is awakened and his personality shifts to supercharged party animal. Not only would it take more time for the drug’s effect to kick in, but considering the strength of a substance like crack, Belfort would have almost certainly battled the initial overwhelm of such a radical shift in his state of mind. Instead, crack is painted as a miraculous party drug, which it most definitely is not.


If you or someone you know needs help dealing with a drug problem or wants information about treatment options, the Department of Health has a helpful list of support services on its website or you can call the Alcohol and Drug Foundation on 1300 85 85 84.


Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia airs Tuesdays at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.

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