Movies about drug addiction so often miss the mark, and this is in many ways understandable given the complexity of the disease.
Addiction is so intensely internal that translating this theme to the big screen is challenging. That said, many directors have pulled this off, and we’ve curated the 10 best addiction movies to inspire you in a relatable manner.
The following films all serve as a stark reminder of where you have been on your addiction journey, and they can also fill you with hope that recovery is always possible, however deep the addiction.
Top 10 Addiction Movies
1. The Basketball Diaries
5. Less Than Zero
6. Drugstore Cowboy
7. Requiem for a Dream
8. Leaving Las Vegas
11. The Boost
12. 28 Days
1) The Basketball Diaries
The Basketball Diaries is a poignant 1995 Scott Kalvert movie based on Jim Carroll’s autobiographical novel of the same title.
This movie outlines Carroll’s teenage years as he nosedives from a high school baller into a wannabe writer with a budding heroin habit.
All is going well for Carroll (Leonardo Di Caprio) until his friend Bobby dies, a victim of childhood leukemia. Taking heroin to numb his pain, Jim’s mothers discovers his stash of drugs and throws him out of the house.
Jim and his friends end up living as homeless drug addicts, with Carroll ultimately resorting to prostitution to feed himself and his growing heroin habit.
Ultimately, it’s Jim’s mother who turns him over to the police when he returns to her apartment. Arrested and convicted of a string of offenses, Carroll is jailed. Here, he detoxes from heroin and remains sober upon his release.
This movie underscores the fact that drug addiction can end with serious legal consequences. More positively, the events in the film make it clear that prison can be used as a catalyst for recovery. Probing the reasons why young people might turn to drugs – it’s not always just for kicks – and it delivers a very inspiring message that recovery is possible even when you’re addicted to drugs and living on the street.
Trainspotting is a 1996 movie based on Irvine Welsh’s seminal 1993 novel of the same title.
A classic modern study of addiction, the action centers on a group of friends living in a poor area in Scotland. Led by Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the group of heroin addicts engage in petty crime to scrabble together enough money for the drugs and booze the film is overflowing with.
Director Danny Boyle doesn’t shy away from showing the seedy side of drug addiction. There’s no glamour here as we are exposed to close-ups of syringes, a disgusting toilet the protagonist reaches down inside to retrieve some opium suppositories, and sweeping vistas of depressed urban poverty. There’s also an accurate and wrenching scene of opiate withdrawal.
Many people suffering from drug addiction feel Trainspotting accurately depicts the desperation and squalor of heroin addiction. Contrast this with the portrayal of heroin in Pulp Fiction. In that movie, John Travolta’s character appears fully functional despite a heroin habit. When Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) overdoses, the whole scene is undercut with a levity not present in Trainspotting.
Critically-acclaimed despite the impenetrable Scots dialect and unrelenting subject matter, if you feel your addiction is spiraling out of control, Trainspotting might inspire you to clean up your act. It’s wildly unlikely to prompt anyone to take drugs given the events that unfold and the way the characters are ravaged by heroin addiction. As Renton betrays all of his friends and steals the proceeds from a large heroin deal at the end of the movie, we see that addiction can lead people to do the unthinkable.
Not only does this movie probe the reasons for people taking drugs, but it also shows the rituals behind using heroin along with the workaday reality of addicts struggling to obtain heroin, and continuing to come back for more despite ruinous consequences.
Rush (1991) is set in Texas in the mid-70s. The movie charts the lives of two drug enforcement agents who end up addicted to the substances they are tasked with eliminating from the streets.
Weathered narcotics police officer Raynor chooses himself a new investigation partner, Kristen Cates (Jennifer Jason Leigh), from a fresh crop of graduates at the police academy.
Raynor points out to his new protégé that they need to navigate the grey area where the legal world meets the illegal underworld. To prepare her for situations in which she might need to use heroin to maintain her front, Raynor teaches her to do so.
Raynor and Cates aim to take down powerful drug boss, Will Gaines. Over the course of the investigation, Raynor and Cates become lovers.
Just as Raynor warned her, Cates soon discovers herself forced to inject heroin at gunpoint in the presence of a dealer. Before long, she becomes addicted to drugs. Raynor, also struggling with a drug problem, helps her through heroin withdrawal and ends up addicted to the drug himself. Ultimately, they both kick the habit.
Despite their best efforts, Gaines is acquitted at trial. Someone – possibly Cates – shoots him in the head as the movie ends.
The movie gives an illuminating insight into drug trafficking and shows that addiction truly doesn’t discriminate.
Barfly is a 1983 comedy drama starring Mickey Rourke as the poet and author Charles Bukowski.
Bukowski wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay himself and Rourke plays the author’s alter ego, alcoholic and misanthrope, Henry Chinaski.
Chinaski lives in a squalid apartment, reluctantly working menial jobs to support himself. He finds writing poetry therapeutic and manages to express his emotions on paper rather than getting into endless bar fights.
Despite getting involved with a wealthy female publisher, Chinaski eventually returns to his life as a destitute alcoholic haunting seedy dive bars. The action ends with Chinaski limbering up for yet another bar brawl.
Barfly shows the powerful attraction alcohol holds over some people, with addiction sometimes setting in so strongly that recovery seems a distant dream.
5) Less Than Zero
Less Than Zero is based on Bret Easton Ellis’s autobiographical novel of the same name, catapulting the author to global fame aged 19 as part of the literary Brat Pack.
The movie is a semi-faithful adaptation of the freeform novel detailing the excesses of Clay, a wealthy teen from Beverly Hills returning for a month over Christmas.
When he returns to LA, Clay finds his girlfriend Blair involved with his best friend, Julian. We watch as Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr, becomes a male prostitute to pay off a large drug debt.
The nihilistic teens float from party to mansion to cinema to nightclub to a constant backdrop of cocaine.
By the end of the movie, we see Julian reduced to a complete wreck, a cautionary tale of what can happen to the young and privileged, even when they seem to have the world at their feet.
While in some ways this movie glamorizes drug use, beneath the sheen we see the lives of these characters unravel. Although it doesn’t quite live up to Easton Ellis’s “novel for the MTC generation”, Less Than Zero deserves a place on any shortlist of the best movies about addiction.
6) Drugstore Cowboy
Drugstore Cowboy (1989) is a Gus Van Sant movie based on James Fogle’s autobiographical novel. Fogle was a veteran drug user and drug dealer. At the time the movie was made, the novel was still unpublished and the author in prison.
Matt Dillon plays the lead character, Bob Hughes, and we see him traveling cross country robbing pharmacies to feed their drug habits.
When Hughes sees his friend Nadine overdose on a bottle of stolen Dilaudid, this acts as a wakeup call and he decides to clean up. Despite his best efforts, though, he is unable to escape from street life. Hughes ends up being shot and driven to hospital, “the fastest pharmacy in town”. With the movie ending on this note, we see that Hughes is unlikely to commit to long-term sobriety.
This movie deftly encompasses crime, theft, overdose, and all the complications that come with drug addiction in young adults.
7) Requiem for a Dream
Requiem for a Dream is a haunting movie chronicling the lives of four individuals at differing stages of drug addiction.
Darren Aronofsky directed the movie based on Hubert Selby Jr’s 1978 novel. The two collaborated on the screenplay.
As addiction sets in, the characters become completely deluded and imprisoned in their own worlds. The widowed Sara Golfarb spends all her time watching TV. Harry, her heroin addict son (Jared Leto) lives with her, along with his friend and his girlfriend.
Sara learns she will appear on her favorite game show so she starts a crash diet and begins taking prescriptions amphetamines. s addicts sell drugs trying to bankroll their dreams – Harry and Marion want to open a clothing store, while Harry’s friend simply wants to leave the ghetto.
With Sara developing full-blown amphetamine psychosis, she ends up admitted to a psychiatric ward and undergoing electroconvulsive therapy.
Harry and Tyrone are arrested with Mario falling into prostitution. The movie ends with the four characters all in tatters.
This is one of the most powerful, moving, and intricate movies about addiction ever committed to celluloid.
8) Leaving Las Vegas
A gritty 1995 movie written and directed by Mike Figgis treats the self-destructive journey of a suicidal alcoholic, ex-screenwriter Ben Sanderson. Figgis shoots the movie in super 16mm rather than the standard 35mm film. This gives the film an art-house aesthetic.
With his job, family, and friends gone, Ben loads up his BMW with booze and heads to the Las Vegas Strip to drink himself to death.
Shortly after arriving, he almost knocks over Sera, a prostitute with an abusive eastern European pimp.
Ben becomes romantically involved with Sera after first paying her $500 but insisting they talk rather than have sex. Ben moves into Sera’s apartment. She makes no attempt to stop him from drinking.
This détente is short-lived, and Sera soon insists that Ben visits a doctor.
As the movie draws to a close, Sera is gang-raped by some violent college students. Sera visits Ben on his deathbed, the two make love, and Ben dies.
Cage researched the role by binge drinking in Ireland for two weeks and studying the footage. The work paid off with his award-winning performance of a man on the edge remaining one of the strongest portrayals of alcoholism ever committed to celluloid.
Poignantly, the author of the novel (John O’Brien) committed suicide shortly after learning a movie adaptation was being made of his movie.
Ted Demme’s 2001 crime movie, Blow, outlines the life of George Jung, a real-life American drug trafficker who worked with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cocaine cartel. The film is adapted from Bruce Porter’s 1993 book of the same name.
Jung moves from Weymouth, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles along with Tuna, his childhood friend. The pair are introduced to a marijuana dealer, and they’re soon making lots of money servicing the local counterculture. When a visiting college student tells them about the great demand for weed back at home, they start buying in bulk from Mexico. The operation is initially successful, but two years later George is caught with 660 pounds of weed.
Jung skips bail, cares for his girlfriend, and she then dies of cancer. Fleeing to his parents’ house, Jung is turned in by his own mother. During his 26 months in jail, Jung meets a member of the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Upon his release, Jung goes into business selling imported Colombian cocaine from Pablo Escobar.
Later, betrayed by the organization and inspired by the birth of his daughter, Jung turns his back on the cartel.
Things go well for a few years until Jung is busted in an FBI/DEA sting operation. Jailed again, his wife divorces him and he loses his daughter.
Blow gives a sweeping insight of all aspects of the drug trade with addiction treated throughout and is still relevant today with the cocaine problem in America far from eradicated despite a quarter-century war on drugs.
Traffic gives the viewer a 360-degree view of the drug trade. Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 crime drama is one of the most incisive movies ever made on the subject, treating the source of drugs, the war against drugs, and the use of drugs in the home. No stone is left unturned.
Three distinct threads run throughout the movie, from Mexico to Wakefield to San Diego.
The thread involving the daughter of a prominent conservative judge becoming involved with cocaine, meth, and heroin shows that drugs can impact anyone, not just poor people from depressed urban backgrounds.
Throughout the movie, it’s impossible to escape the message that addiction affects all our lives, even if we don’t personally know someone suffering from this insidious disease.
As the lives of the main characters come undone, the drugs never stop entering the United States in spite of the government’s best efforts.
Traffic is not a quick or easy movie to watch, but for anyone looking to learn more about addiction, it’s a must.
Treatment for Addiction at Renaissance Recovery
Maybe you’re inspired by some of the movies above and watching one has reinforced that you need to take action and seek out treatment.
The good news is, here at Renaissance Recovery, we can personalize treatment programs to help you fight back against addiction to drink or drugs. We can also help if you have a dual diagnosis and you need to address an underlying mental health condition.
To get things started, call our friendly admissions team at 866.330.9449 and we’ll help you kickstart your recovery journey then help you every step of the way.