Golden Brown: A History Of Heroin On The Silver Screen

Hollywood has long been fascinated by the down-and-outs at the other end of the spectrum. Here are some of the best silver-screen depictions of heroin and its effects
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There’s been talk recently of a sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 classic, Trainspotting. It’s a rumour that has set message boards, and fans of good cinema, alight with anticipation at the prospect of a sequel equal to Boyle’s Edinburgh-set, toilet-diving, dog-shooting career highlight. If the film is set on Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel novel, ‘Porno’, or even the brilliant 2012 prequel ‘Skag Boys’,  we’re sure to be in for an addictive treat.

Heroin has had a long and nefarious history with popular culture and is equally responsible for some of the high, and low, points of the last few decades of film and music. It’s rumoured to have helped bring about the end of Blur’s britpop reign and to have almost killed Foo Fighter’s drummer Taylor Hawkins. It’s the drug that famously drove Russell Brand to the edge of sanity and it’s the drug responsible for iconic songs such as the Chili Peppers’ ‘Under The Bridge’, Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Hurt’ and Guns ‘N’ Roses ‘Mr Brownstone’.

If you’re the sort of toerag who thinks any of these things is an endorsement of heroin, these are the films to put you off, once and for all.


If you’re looking for one movie to bring you into the world of skag on film, choose Trainspotting, choose a sofa, choose a snack and settle down. The film that brought Ewan McGregor to the mainstream, by way of a Leith toilet, has all the hallmarks of a classic film. Great soundtrack? Check. Stella cast? Check, check and check again. Vividly disturbing scenes of a dead baby crawling across a ceiling? Unfortunately, check. Director Danny Boyle has claimed this is a film that comments on 90’s rave culture, rather than heroin, but a single viewing of this is enough to put you off both.

Requiem For A Dream

This 2000 effort from director Darren Aronofsky is a nasty piece of work. Centering around the effects of heroin and amphetamines on four characters, Requiem forgoes the light-hearted banter of Trainspotting, the bed shitting and home-porn tapes, and replaces them with cold reality. This doesn’t just dive into a toilet for a few minutes, no, this is a film set in a toilet. Murder, amputations, prostitution, double-ended dildos, mental breakdowns, racist prison guards and shattered dreams all make this a fantastic, yet extremely uncomfortable movie.


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The Basketball Diaries

Long before he was exploring dreams within dreams, and even before he was freezing to death at sea because Rose couldn’t just bloody move over, Leonardo DiCaprio did some of his finest work in Scott Kalvert’s adaptation of Jim Carroll’s diaries of his tear-away teenage years. It’s a performance that is up there alongside The Aviator and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and stands in sharp contrast to his later, early-2000s roles in Titanic and The Man In The Iron Mask. It’s also one of Mark Wahlberg’s best roles as Jim’s best buddy and partner in petty crime, Mickey. Interestingly, the film does not hold a fantastically high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but, if you’re looking for a slice of gritty New York drama, this film is at the top of my recommendations.

The Panic In Needle Park

If you’re a fan of Al Pacino’s subtler performances (Serpico, The Godfather), this is not a film for you. If you are a fan of the great man and all of his even greater performances, then get stuck in. Here he stars as ‘sex-crazed dope-fiend’ (his own words) Bobby, whose day-to-day existence involves hustling stolen TVs whilst trying to impress naive Helen (Kitty Reeves). As Helen and Bobby spend more and more time together, they spiral downward into love and addiction. It’s a brilliant portrayal of down and outs and a great metaphor for the addictive qualities of love. It’s also believed to be the first film to ever show injections on screen. ‘God Help Bobby and Helen.’

American Gangster

American Gangster is a film that flips the story of heroin on its head and focuses on the other end of the spectrum: the rich and parasitic dealers. As Jay Z says ‘Over here, it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs, Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs, The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets’. American Gangster has been criticised for glamorising this materialistic aspect to the heroin trade, painting my man Denzel Washinton’s Frank Lucas as an effortlessly cool customer. He’s a bad guy with a conscience who eventually turns to the light to help Russell Crowe’s cop-turned-lawyer put away his former criminal associates. It’s an ending that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, after what was, for the most part, a hugely enjoyable film. The Wire, it ain’t, but American Gangster does an entertaining job of re-telling the age-old story of cops and robbers, against a backdrop of 1970s heroin.