The 10 Best (and Worst) Drug Scenes in Movie History
Representing drug use on screen has always presented artistic challenges as well as political ones. But these druggy depictions—rated for realism—will stay with you forever.
Since movies began, directors have struggled, both politically and artistically, with how to translate the drug experience into a visual medium. In the early days of Hollywood the Hays Code, introduced in 1930, ensured that an ostensible purpose of warning people away with an anti-drug message was the only way for filmmakers to get a titillating glimpse of drugs onto the screen. Still, movies like Narcotic (1933), The Cocaine Fiends (1935) and Marihuana: The Weed With Roots in Hell (1936) did a roaring trade by cobbling together woefully inaccurate, tabloid-level scare stories to make a cheap buck on the exploitation circuit.
Things changed radically in—you guessed it—the ‘60s, when the transformation of social mores brought a slew of unashamedly druggy movies to the big screen. But although the general standard may have improved since then, it’s still true that in Hollywood, drugs are often no more than a prop—a lazy screenwriter’s short cut to supposed edginess. Even in the glory days of the psychedelic ‘60s, for every Easy Rider (1969), there were a dozen awful cheapies like Alice in Acidland (1969) or The Weird World of LSD (1967).
Inspired by both the best and worst that cinema has to offer, Substance.com presents a chronological list of the 10 most notable drug scenes in cinematic history, meticulously rated for realism.
Hold on tight—things are about to get weird…
1. Reefer Madness (1937)
One of the most famous cinematic depictions of marijuana use, this infamous anti-pot exploitation flick went on to become a midnight-movie favorite among the stoner crowd. You could use any of the smoking scenes to highlight the movie’s hilariously melodramatic and overwrought style, but this hilarious sequence —where the stoned guy implores the girl to play “faster… FASTER!” while gurning maniacally—is my personal favorite. While this piece of failed propaganda has rightly become the stuff of comedy legend, the spirit of Reefer Madness lives on, thanks to the good folks over at Above the Influence and Project SAM.
Realism rating: 1/5
2. Easy Rider (1969)
The slightly hackneyed feel of this scene when viewed today is actually a testament to Easy Rider’s success in portraying Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s pivotal acid trip. While the fast cutting, bizarre imagery, mumbled dialogue and fragmented narrative have since become movie-acid-trip cliché, at the time they were fresh, innovative and effective enough to be widely imitated. The scene where Fonda hugs a statue while calling out for his dead mother is bizarre and also oddly affecting. It probably helped that the cast and crew were—according to Hopper—out of their gourd on “speed, wine and weed” during the shoot. For many straights using Easy Rider as a voyeuristic peephole into hippie culture, this was their first acid experience—and it still holds a haze of druggy madness that makes it authentic. For an extra dimension in weirdness, check out the two prostitutes who join the boys on their cemetery trip—portrayed by none other than cult legend Karen Black and future-“Hey Mickey” singer, Toni Basil.
Realism rating: 3/5
3. Death Drug (1978)
Made in the late ‘70s then re-released after lead actor Philip Michael Hall made it big as Tubbs on Miami Vice, Death Drug stands proud as one of the funniest and most inept anti-drug movies ever made. A lurid melodrama about the dangers of PCP, it boasted a musical interlude that was one of the trippiest scenes in the movie (and one of the most wonderfully eighties things you will ever see.) Every scene in this flick is a bad-movie-lover’s delight, but it is this startling PCP freak-out in a supermarket that really takes the cake.
Realism rating: 1/5
4. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Depicting the effects of heroin on film confronts the director with a unique aesthetic challenge. After all there are no “visuals” when you shoot dope, just an immensely pleasurable body high. From the outside it looks as though nothing more exciting than a nap is taking place. But in Gus Van Sant’s excellent adaptation of the novel by the tragically neglected author James Fogel, the scene where Matt Dillon (as Bob Hughes) shoots up in the back of a car achieves the seemingly impossible by giving non-users a peek into what fixing dope is really like. As the hit goes in, the drab scenery they are driving past takes on a rosy hue and suddenly everything looks like some nostalgic 8mm movie from a lost childhood summer. Even without Dillon’s heavily sedated monologue, or the oddball visuals of floating houses, the viewer is subtly drawn into a world of negative pleasure. Even many years after I quit dope, this scene can still make me salivate like a hungry dog.
Realism rating: 5/5
5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Translating the late, great Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo prose to the big screen has tripped up most who attempted it. Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) boasted a fantastic turn by Bill Murray as Thompson and little else, while the Johnny Depp vehicle The Rum Diary (2011) was the cinematic equivalent of a Xanax and Ambien cocktail. But the anarchic spirit of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, Jabberwocky, Brazil) turned out to be the perfect foil for the good doctor’s amphetamine-fueled writing, and the resulting Fear and Loathing remains a high mark not only of Gilliam’s oeuvre, but of Johnny Depp’s. The infamous hotel scene, in which Thompson and his “lawyer” roll up in Vegas (a bad acid trip of a town at the best of times) while peaking on a cocktail of mind-bending chemicals is a classic of druggy cinema, replete with faces that swirl and distort, moving patterns on the carpet, rivers of blood and Depp’s perfectly pitched, bug-eyed, sweaty performance.
Realism rating: 5/5
6. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Drugs: Heroin, speed, TV
Darren Aronofsky’s adaption of Hubert Selby Jr’s beautiful novel about drug addicts in Coney Island is, on most levels, a triumph. Requiem is a haunting, powerful meditation on addiction of all kinds—visually stunning, inventive and with a devastating emotional punch. However, a lot of people (myself included) had a problem with the drug-taking scenes. Given that Harry, Tyrone and Marion were meant to be heroin addicts, all of the fast-cutting trickery Aronofsky employs whenever they shoot up is jarring. And the fact that their pupils expand instead of contracting when they get high is a distracting mistake. Still, even though these scenes are kind of a miss, the rest of the movie is so well done that you have to forgive the director. These minor flaws aside, Requiem for a Dream is still one of the best drug movies of recent times.
Realism rating: 2/5
7. In Bruges (2008)
Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy, starring Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, is a whip-smart character study of two fucked-up hit men, who find themselves cooling off in Belgium after a job gone wrong. It also features one of the funniest—and most accurate—cocaine scenes ever committed to celluloid. Anyone who has ever experienced that grimy 4am feeling—when you’re wired, high, and suddenly realize that you’re deep in a bizarre conversation with someone who is utterly insane—will appreciate this one. Without further ado I present the racist, coked-up… um, “little person.” (The fun really begins around the 4:45 mark.)
Realism rating: 4/5
8. Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noé’s award-winning psychedelic epic was a visual and auditory tour de force which was reportedly inspired by the director having watched The Lady in the Lake, Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Raymond Chandler adaption while under the influence of magic mushrooms. Void is seen entirely from the point of view of Oscar, a young American drug dealer whose spirit bobs and weaves through Tokyo’s psychedelic underbelly after he has been fatally shot by police. The sequence in which Oscar smokes DMT, the grandpappy of all psychedelic drugs, is hands-down one of the most beautiful and realistic depictions of the psychedelic experience ever captured on film.
Realism rating: 5/5
9. Killing Them Softly (2012)
Everything about the pivotal heroin scene in this mob caper flick is great. Sure, if we’re going to nit-pick, maybe the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” was a bit of an obvious choice for the soundtrack. But the performances by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as loveable fuck-ups Frankie and Russell are dead-on: the heavy lids, the facial mannerisms, the stuttering rhythm of the dialogue as the two characters go in and out of their nod, mid-conversation… It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of heroin use you’ll ever see.
Realism rating: 5/5
10. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Drugs: Qualuudes, cocaine
There are so many great drug scenes in this film that it’s hard to single out one for our attention. But this hilarious sequence, where Leonardo DiCaprio as madman stockbroker Jordan Belfort reaches “cerebral palsy” levels of Quaalude intoxication—and then has to snort cocaine so he will be coordinated enough to perform the Heimlich maneuver on Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill)—is comedy genius. Not only that, but it’s a pitch-perfect portrayal of the kind of thing that can happen when you take too many ‘ludes. I recall once blowing an important meeting with a record label because I’d gobbled Quaaludes beforehand: I got up from the table to piss and careened into the table next to us on my way to vanishing completely. When someone was sent to look for me, they found me collapsed over a urinal. Good times.
Realism rating: 4/5
Tony O’Neill is the author of books including Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He recently wrote for Substance.com about the New York Times‘ hypocrisy in testing its prospective employees for marijuana.
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