The topic of addiction is one that’s been explored frequently throughout film history. It’s a difficult subject that can be captured in many art forms, sure, but there’s something about the visual medium that makes the topic more visceral, personal, and powerful. Film offers a way to get inside a character’s mind, or observe a character from a distance, depending on the approach taken. Sometimes, films depicting addiction will do a bit of both.
The following movies are difficult to watch, and while the descriptions here won’t be graphic, the subject itself may be disturbing to some. They are nevertheless movies worth bringing up, as addiction is a human condition that affects many in various ways; sometimes as an exercise in empathy, sometimes as a cautionary tale, and sometimes as a bit of both.
A classic British movie that certainly increased the profile of its star and director, Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor respectively, Trainspotting is a fast, entertaining, sometimes funny, but also deeply disturbing look at a group of friends in Scotland, many of whom are addicted to heroin.
It’s a film that balances multiple tones at once, blending it all into something surprisingly coherent. It’s also notable for being one of the more honest depictions of drug use on film, as it lays out why some turn to a substance like heroin and why it’s so difficult to stop in remarkable clarity. It’s therefore an empathetic and eye-opening film, though as a warning, it has several scenes that are quite hard to watch, owing to its brutal honesty.
‘Uncut Gems’ (2019)
Rather than looking at a substance addiction or dependence, Uncut Gems uses its exceedingly intense135-minute runtime to explore a self-destructive gambling addiction in ferocious, relentless detail. It’s hard to watch, but admittedly riveting and hard to look away from, being about a man (Adam Sandler) who lives life on the edge, consistently faced with worsening debt, and unable to know when to quit.
It’s something of a modern tragedy, being about a protagonist who digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole throughout an entire film. It is undoubtedly about the highs and lows of gambling, whether that be taking risks with money or getting involved with loan sharks, and it’s unafraid to show the consequences of what can come with too much thrill-seeking, when finances are involved.
Broadly speaking, Amy is a documentary about the tragically short life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who died at just 27 in 2011. It’s an intimate and heartbreaking film, and covers in confronting detail the various substances Winehouse became dependent on, with alcohol ending up being the cause of her accidental, fatal overdose.
It’s emotional and impactful from that alone, but Amy is also a film that casts its net outwards, over the audience and public at large, suggesting no one took Winehouse’s struggles seriously enough at the time, and that the tabloid articles written about her and jokes made at her expense only made her personal struggles more difficult. Not only does Amy confront addiction, but it also shows how much harder it can be to deal with when you’re in the limelight, and the living nightmare of being constantly scrutinized by people who don’t know what you’re really going through.
‘Christiane F.’ (1981)
A German film about a girl in her early teens becoming addicted to heroin, and the things she needs to do to fund said addiction, Christiane F. is one of the most upsetting, harrowing, and dark films of the 1980s… or maybe even ever.
The film masterfully uses the pop/rock music of David Bowie (who also has a cameo) to show the vibrancy and energy of young life in the film’s early scenes, only to replace it with some of the musician’s dark, ambient tracks used sparingly in the despair-filled second half of the film. A traumatic and difficult watch, it’s nevertheless a powerful film about something that has impacted – and does still impact – young people. It was based on a real-life person, after all.
‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945)
The Lost Weekend stands as an early example of an addiction-themed story on film. It depicts one man (played by the great Ray Milland) going on a large drinking binge over a weekend, portraying in unflinching detail how each drink sends him further downwards into a spiral he can’t escape from.
Perhaps it’s not as hard-hitting or realistic as some more grounded, recent movies that tackle addiction, but this was ground-breaking stuff by 1945 standards. It was honored with several Academy Awards for its look at alcohol addiction, and still holds a reasonable amount of power all these decades later.
‘The Fire Within’ (1963)
In The Fire Within, the audience is given a glimpse into the mind of Alain Leroy. He’s a man who’s just left hospital after being treated for alcohol addiction, and though he’s been “healed” by medical standards, he finds readjusting to life post-dependency to be dull, tiring, and almost too exhausting to deal with.
Rather than capture a downward spiral into addiction, The Fire Within examines the difficulty of what comes after an addiction is overcome. It’s a less-explored angle, and it makes this a one-of-a-kind (yet very difficult to watch) film. In presenting a difficult life without joy, the film itself is difficult and contains little to no joy. Not an entertaining film by any means, but it’s certainly an emotive, different, and ultimately important one.
‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013)
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that tackles more than one form of addiction. For starters, Jordan Belfort tells the audience about the various drugs he takes as part of his everyday lifestyle, through his narration. We see the way this impacts his life throughout. While the movie can be funny, it ends up surprisingly harrowing, and could take an audience expecting humor entirely throughout off-guard.
The film also tackles the addictive nature of money and power, with Belfort’s relentless pursuit of both being another sort of addiction altogether. He’s shown to hurt himself and others through this desire for more and more wealth… though for all his criminal activity, the film – quite cynically – suggests he suffered few personal consequences for his wrongdoing and greed.
Steve McQueen’s cold, sad film about sex addiction, Shame, also features one of Michael Fassbender’s best performances of his career so far. He lives a fairly lonely life that revolves around his need for constant sex, and it’s shown to have a great emotional impact on both him and his family.
It’s a difficult film to watch, in many ways proving just as harrowing as addiction-related films that deal with physical substances. This being a purely psychological dependency doesn’t make the addiction any easier to view, and the film’s confidence in tackling such a unique subject should be (and has been) applauded.
‘Oslo, August 31st’ (2011)
Borrowing from 1963’s The Fire Within, though updating it for modern times/audiences, Oslo, August 31st isn’t quite a remake. This is because it turns out they’re both inspired by the same 1931 novel. While the 1963 film deals with a recently treated alcoholic dealing with life after alcohol, this 2011 film with a young man who’s received treatment for heroin addiction.
The difficulties of connecting with people and finding a purpose in a world whilst sober are portrayed in stark, unflinching detail here. It shows how easy relapses can happen, and how empty life can feel when you’re stuck without a direction. It’s a brutally hard watch, but brilliantly made and acted.
‘Requiem for a Dream’ (2000)
Requiem for a Dream is a film that makes its villain not an individual or group of people, but the concept of addiction itself. The film is a stylized, sometimes heightened, but still brutal movie about how four people’s lives are changed and impacted by their dependencies on various substances, be they amphetamines or heroin.
Because of its abrasive approach, Requiem for a Dream does not always feel like the most balanced or realistic of addiction-themed movies. Instead, it aims to present the worst of what addiction can do, and strays into near-excessive nightmarish imagery as a result. However, this approach is also effective in a blunt-force, shock-to-the-senses kind of way, and when it comes to presenting the message it wants to get across, it undeniably succeeds.
NEXT: The Highs and Lows of How Best Picture Oscar Winner ‘The Lost Weekend’ Depicts Alcoholism