Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Writer: Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne; based onThe Panic in Needle Park by James Mills
Cinematographer: Adam Holender
Producer: Dominick Dunne
by Jon Cvack
With no reason beyond the cover and the title, I always thought this was a melodramatic drug addiction story, even though I knew that Pacino was in it and that Needle Park was a pretty gnarly place. The moment Pacino enters with that bandana, I knew I was wrong. This is a dark story about heroin that never shifts in the way you want or hope it to. It portrays the drug’s power and control, and I struggle to compare it to anything off the top of my head. It’s a very real looking story, perhaps best compared to The French Connection, though even darker.
The story involves young woman Helen Reeves (Kity Winn) who embodies purity and innocence with the ever slightest hint of darkness. The plot rapid fires and in this case she soon meets Bobby (Pacino) who only “chips” heroine, who Helen then discovers is actually a heavy user along with a petty thief. Pacino blows this performance to pieces, skipping between charisma and ire from scene to scene, or even second to second. Winn’s is a slow descent, down into where we never think she goes and even deeper than we imagine.
I always found the drug terrifying, both its method and use. For someone to try heroin for the first time, knowing it’s the most addictive drugs there is that will likely destroy their lives, requires a heartbreaking struggle; indicating an emptiness far beyond what most comprehend. On Reddit a user asked what heroin was like, and the answer was incredible. I always pictured some profound ecstasy, but instead heard that it’s more like an antidepressant (explored in Prescription Thugs (2015)), making everything seem “okay” or just kind of “good.” I know that I’ve been prescribed them for a few surgeries, and being a bit anxious, I got this exact feeling. In addition to cutting the pain, it calmed things down and made everything just okay and I understood the danger ever since. Whatever demons a person is struggling with, saying yes to heroin is attempting to mitigate them.
We never know what Helen and Bobby ever wanted out of life. Made it 1971, I guess you could say it was the generation coming down off the summer of ’68. My friend’s dad gifted me the book "Season of the Witch" by David Talbot about San Francisco from the 1950s through the 1990s, and the city’s descent into widespread heroin usage is terrifying. None of the change the summer of love generation were hoping for came through, and they were left lost. Helen embodies this idea while Bobby seems to have never left the Park. We see what they’re willing to do for that one bit of pleasure, certain that there is nothing else that could take its place.
The film received no Oscar nominations, though Kitty Winn won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not a large surprise, but given how well it holds up, it seems like metaphor for the problem. When I see a movie like Moonlight stand to win Best Picture, it makes me believe that things have improved. This is an incredible and haunting film that I think will stick with me for a long time, especially as the Opiate Epidemic continues, with symptoms that seem strikingly similar to those back in the early 1970s, if not worse.
BELOW: A Reddit user responds to what heroin feels like
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