Starring Kitty Winn as Helen and Al Pacino as Bobby, the Panic in Needle Park is a sad and unusual love story of two addicts whose codependency on narcotics and each other drives them towards the road of pain, abuse and betrayal. Although we do not reach Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream levels of soul crushing hopelessness and anguish, there is still plenty to depressing and harrowing moments to be found in this 1970s depiction of the day to day life of New York City junkies.
Overall, the movie is a very uncomfortable viewing experience. You cannot help but feel a bit dirty, like an illicit voyeur, as you witness Bobby and Helen slowly deteriorate in front of your eyes, as their addiction bit by bit takes a stronger hold of them until it straight out dominates their day-to-day lives, transforming them from a relatively charming, albeit a bit unusual and happy-go-lucky young couple in love to a pair of utterly wretched human beings living hollow lives, forced to debase themselves and each other in increasingly immoral acts in order to survive.
For a movie made over forty years ago the movie it still feels surprisingly vibrant and raw with its depiction of drug addiction. It never for example turns into a cheesy, moralizing Reefer Madness style propaganda film nor does it shy away from showing you the grimmer aspects of addiction. It isn’t also particularly interested in being judgemental or shocking for the sake of sensationalism, even if it does feature plenty of scenes of people injecting drug needles to their armpits, something that the general audiences at the time of the release weren’t yet used to seeing on the big screen. The movie simply attempts to offer a very honest look at the ugly face of drug addiction, and just how pitiful and sad that life is.
Part of the ugliness shown in the movie is how easy Helen’s road to becoming an addict truly is. Even though she doesn’t show any interest in using drugs initially, going as far as warning Bobby that shooting dope will kill him when she discovers he’s a “casual” user, all it really takes to defuse her reservations and normalize drug use in her eyes are few sweet, duplicitous words from Bobby: “I’m not hooked, I’m just chippin’.” One duplicitous little lie, and Helen is completely disarmed. After that it doesn’t take long before she’s already absorbed to the meat grinder that is the heroin addict community of Needle Park area, getting high whenever she can, selling herself to get money for her and Bobby’s next hit when their funds are low and pushing pills when everything else fails.
When you’re watching a movie about drug addiction, you know there will be some heinous stuff happening in the story and you’re usually prepared for it, but in this case there’s one particularly grim scene that really got under my skin. It’s not a particularly graphic or violent scene, but the context and situation surrounding it is so daunting and awful that it really made me skittish. The scene starts with Bobby having OD’d at a friend’s apartment and Helen trying desperately to keep him conscious with one of Bobby’s so called friends, while all the other junkies in the room are panicking and screaming that Bobby can’t die inside the apartment, worried more about saving their own skin than the ultimate fate of their supposed friend. It’s already pretty vile and awful situation at this point for the obvious reasons, but that’s just where we begin. The real kicker is what happens next, when everyone in the small apartment, including a small wailing baby and just barely conscious Bobby, are suddenly forced en masse to go hide in the bathroom and told to stay quiet. It’s not because the cops are banging at the door and they are desperately trying to hide and keep any incriminating evidence out of sight, or anything of the sort. No, it’s because the mother of the crying baby is a prostitute, and she needs the room cleared so that she can let in her next paying client who happens to already be waiting outside in the hallway, so that she can earn her rent and drug money. There’s just something so awful and bleak about the scene, especially when you realize this is a very likely a regular occurrence in these circles.
Another rather heart breaking moment is when Helen and Bobby, during one of their more amiable periods, go to the countryside together to buy a puppy, with some superfluous talk of maybe leaving behind the Needle Park and the corrosive lifestyle they’ve so heavily tangled in. But getting clean is easier said than done, and that’s all it ends up being, just idle and empty talk with no real intent or determination behind them. Already on their ferry ride back to the city both of them end up getting high again in the men’s bathroom, resulting in their newly bought puppy drowning due to being left outside, free to run around the deck on its own volition until it accidentally jumps off the boat to the bowels of the surrounding cold water and dies. And along with it goes all the hypothetical hope that the puppy in a metaphorical sense represented to the lives of Bobby and Helen. And for what, one brief blissful injection of heroin taking under duress when Bobby began feeling antsy watching Helen be down while he was riding high.
In essence the movie is one long fall down the rabbit hole that is drug addiction, with no realistic prospects of hope, rescue or even redemption. Friends will betray friends, lovers will pressure and abuse lovers. The endless quest of chasing the dragon will never result in finding a permanent escape from your Earthy problems and the soul sucking dependence of dope. There is no breaking the cycle. And the most dismal thing about it is that even after everything that Bobby and Helen go through together, deep down, they still love each other and can’t ever break apart. Even after Helen snitches on Bobby to cut herself a deal with the police, she’s right there, waiting for him in front of the gate when he’s finally released back to the streets. And with very little objection, he simply accepts her back. Their love has tied them together and destined to drag them both down to the very bottom of the hazy heroin fueled abyss. That’s just how it is. They know this, and there’s no changing it. It’s just another link in the chain of love and betrayals.