Since it started streaming on Netflix, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park has been seeing a sort of resurgence among movie fans and cinephiles. Centering on the lives of two heroin addicts in love near New York City’s proverbial “Needle Park”, the film navigates the maddening desperation and hopeless attachment of this couple to showcase a grim underbelly of addiction in America.
Despite sounding a bit like the exploitative “poverty porn” you’d see on a TV primetime news special, the film deals with its subjects, and its audience, in a respectful and unsensational manner, highlighting humanity over depravity. It doesn’t manufacture grim atmospheres nor does it play up the debauchery of its subjects to exploitative ends. Rather, the film’s characters resonate with us as charismatic, congenial but also incredibly flawed and frustrating people who succumb to the worst of vices and eventually trap themselves in a cycle they can’t break out of. Both Bobby and Helen, despite having their relationship hinge on their dependency to heroin, do things normal couples would do: eat sandwiches in the park, talk about their life ambitions, get jealous, and stick up for each other.
That it’s bubbling up from the depths now to be discovered by a Netflix-streaming generation is rather fortuitous. While many of us may think we understand heroin addiction as an obvious social problem, the breadth of our knowledge is limited solely to the depiction of junkies as depraved and scary individuals. The academics among us will throw around data like the increased opioid overdose rates among teens and what percentage of those are heroin induced. Even those of us who empathize with the idea that an addict is someone who needs help, not punishment, can’t say much about the day to day experience of an addict beyond stealing money and getting a fix.
The Panic in Needle Park shouldn’t be treated as some ‘be all say all’ of the junkie demographic (it is a work of narrative fiction after all, even if it presents its subjects unfiltered) but it does serve as one of Hollywood’s single most responsible documentations of the slow and painful collapse caused by addiction. That it filters itself through a love story, as we see the co-dependency that heroin entraps both of them in forcing them to drag each other down, makes it all the more devastating. Addiction within the film is not solely in the context of drugs, but also love and money. Helen’s dependency on Bobby for emotional comfort is reciprocated equally as Bobby begins to depend on Helen for his scores. His need for money turns their supposed loving relationship into a pimp-prostitute business contract. He continues to get jealous every time Helen sleeps with someone for money even though their desperation makes it a necessity. Despite the abuse and the perversion by which their relationship is defined, Helen can never seem to leave Bobby. Their arguments and fights and bouts of domestic violence are always outweighed by the knowledge that they are each other’s sole meal ticket to money and heroin.
The central mutual self-destruction of two people who love each other makes The Panic in Needle Park easy pray to becoming a sappy sob-story which manipulates our emotions and draws out the tears. Schatzberg and his screenwriters Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne however, create incredibly multi-faceted characters who’s likability and unlikeability at different points throughout the film keep us empathetic but aware that we are not so far removed from them. There are things in our life, be it people, substances, or places, we keep going back to despite them being terrible for us. Attachment is a powerful thing. So is dependency. Addiction is a culmination of both and magnified ten-fold. In the end of the film, the whimpering and forced sadness we would normally feel in a “traditional” melodramatic Hollywood treatment of drug addicts is instead a practical understanding of Bobby and Helen’s plight, and if maybe not quite expected, an appreciation for them as humans.
A note on the acting: The movie’s claim to fame is that it is “Al Pacino’s debut role”, which is a false statement, though the film is the first role in which Pacino is the lead actor. Opposite him (Bobby) is the ethereal Kitty Winn (Helen), whose film career unfortunately only spanned six films (including The Exorcist) within one decade, after which she inexplicably retired from acting. If her performance in Panic in Needle Park, which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1971, is any indication, we missed out on an actress who could’ve been at least as great as Ellen Burstyn or Sissy Spacek, her young 70’s indie contemporaries.