The Panic in Needle Park

The Panic in Needle Park ★★★★

In this day and age the "junkie movie" has been done plenty of times, to varying levels of success, but even when the performances hit home it all feels like it's been done before. As Heath Ledger said in regards to his film Candy, "now-a-days everyone knows how to play a junkie". It takes a lot to stand out in this kind of film, and one of the things that allows The Panic in Needle Park to set itself apart is how early it came along. Released in 1971, the film directed by Jerry Schatzberg takes a boldly honest look at the life of heroin addicts Bobby and Helen (Al Pacino and Kitty Winn), unflinching in it's depiction of their need for a fix.

I have to admit I found myself surprised at the simple fact that they showed people shooting up directly on screen here, unafraid of displaying the hard truth of this kind of lifestyle. It's something that we take for granted now, seeing it on screen has become a standard occurrence, but Schatzberg was impressively upfront in his approach here for it's time. The way the film is structured, moving in a hazed rhythm from day-to-day, feels like an accurate representation of this kind of life. There is no honest structure, no narrative move from plot point A to plot point B, but instead just a series of events that don't really have a pace to them at all. It's distinctly told and I think it works very well.

Bobby and Helen are already together at the start of the film, but Bobby drags Helen down with him into his decay of addiction, but what's interesting is how it doesn't feel like much of a gradual slip. There are events that occur that certainly shake the foundation of their relationships and themselves, but it's always up and down with them, one day could be great and the next could be miserable. It felt like a much more accurate way to depict their lives than if the film had shown a gradual descent for either character.

The performances help tremendously in servicing what Schatzberg attempts to achieve, as both actors deliver some fine work. Pacino, in his first leading role and right on the cusp of superstardom as The Godfather would come next year, gives one of his finest performances on screen. He has a natural charisma that he utilizes well, making it even more heartbreaking when Bobby eventually pulls Helen down with him. He seems like a genuinely decent guy who has let his dependency on drugs turn him into this kind of poison, a poison that runs so deep that he doesn't realize the consequences of his actions. Bobby could have easily been a detestable character, but Pacino plugs in enough of his charm to make the character feel real and interesting without making him overly likeable to the point where the audience would be rooting for a junkie.

Winn is given more to do in terms of the emotional range of her character, since through Helen we see a full descent whereas Bobby is already near his bottom, and she excels every step of the way. She creates this full transformation from the innocent, sweet and naive girl into a junkie as low as Bobby is. I found myself struggling along with her, hoping desperately for her to get out of this life, but knowing that her dependency had gotten her in far too deep. With an impressively ambiguous ending that gives no resolution or chance for redemption to these characters, The Panic in Needle Park really set the standard for a movie depicting drug addiction and I don't think that standard has been topped since it's release.

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