Dramas confronting the issue of heroin abuse are a particularly difficult challenge for filmmakers. The balance between creating an image of stark, unflinching reality and simply settling for cheap shock tactics is, indeed, a fine one. Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971) – starring a fresh-faced Al Pacino – certainly falls into the former rather than the latter of these categories.
Pacino plays Bobby, a young, petty criminal and drug addict, and his unfortunate girlfriend Helen, played by Kitty Winn, The Panic in Needle Park paints a shocking and, at times, disturbing picture of the spiralling and destructive effects of heroin addiction. Its depictions of users shooting up and the subsequent consequences are done so with great realism; at no point glamorising or trivialising the subject.
As well as the finely balanced sense of direction, the performances of the key cast members are equally impressive. Pacino’s portrayal of Bobby is absolutely mesmerising. The manner by which we see the initial characteristics of this slightly wild, yet lovable and charming character disintegrate into a severely damaged and dangerous drug fiend is testament to Pacino’s superb abilities as an actor. Even at such an early point in his career, the formidable presence he brings to the screen is truly incredible.
As far as dramas of this kind are concerned The Panic in Needle Park is, in my view, without doubt one of the most thought-provoking ever committed to film. When compared with more recent films tackling the same themes it more than holds its own, and, in many cases, surpasses them.
Take for instance the much revered Requiem for a Dream (2000). Whilst many, for some reason, are keen to extol the virtues of such a ‘gritty’ and ‘uncompromising’ movie, I personally found it to be patronising, puerile and trashy, relying heavily on shock value and essentially screaming at you to be repulsed at the unfolding events. The construction and exposition of The Panic in Needle Park takes the viewer by surprise with its ‘grittier’ moments, whereas Requiem for a Dream hardly differs from The Human Centipede (2009) in its shabby approach to shocking its audience.
Although The Panic in Needle Park may not be one of the most well-known of Pacino’s movies, at least to me, it is undoubtedly worthy of ranking alongside some of his more renowned and famed roles. While the underlying menace and explosive nature that has become a staple of Pacino’s performances is undeniably evident in his portrayal of Bobby, there is still a great sense of originality and distinction on offer to provide a clear edge to proceedings.
So, if like me, you weren’t previously aware of The Panic in Needle Park, you could do a lot worse than purchasing a copy forthwith.