I've been catching up with Breaking Bad recently – a show I was drawn to because it was compared (in terms of quality) to shows that I love like The Wire and Deadwood. This is arguable but for sure I have found Breaking Bad to be a really good dramatic thriller with one twist coming after another as the stakes get higher. One thing that doesn't really fit into the show though (unlike The Wire) is a look at the reality of the crystal meth which is the plot device at the centre of Breaking Bad's dramatics. Not a problem in terms of the show doing what it does, but it did make me wonder about the drug since the UK doesn't seem to have the sort of problems with it that the US does. When I saw this programme listed I thought it was a good chance to find out more.
In this Louis Theroux (he of the perpetually bemused innocent outsider approach) goes to Fresno in California, where the problem is rife. He goes for ride-alongs with the local police and meets several groups of people actively using – some in "happy" relationships and some living the clichéd life of theft and dingy corners. The documentary doesn't really have a conclusion to it – mainly because there isn't one generally, even the policeman doesn't want to think about the problem ten years from now, because the problem has no end in sight. What the film does do very well though is to break through the clichés and show a variety of users and discuss a variety of reasons. This approach is entirely summed up in one scene early in the film where a car of several young women and a guy are pulled over and found to have drugs in the car; we join them as the three women are handcuffed and sitting on the curb. One of them seems very pretty and young and is struggling not to laugh – she draws no sympathy and just seems like someone enjoying getting high. However a brief discussion brings out a lot in her past and a lot of pain behind the drug-induced laughter. It isn't earth-shattering but Theroux does a good job of getting to it.
Similarly we meet an older couple who inject several times a day and seem to be managing it; however it isn't long before a history of jail, prostitution, rape and desperate times comes out and perhaps makes the fall into addiction easier to understand. The younger dealers and users he hangs out with do not quite draw the same sympathy – but the focus there is with the very young children growing up in this world, Louis doesn't say it (his still is to be more questioning and subtle) but they are screwed, no question, and it is really depressing to see, particularly when the film also has a young cook who got into this world via his user mother. Theroux is suitably restrained and lets his subjects speak – he doesn't really get solutions or answers but he does paint a really saddening picture of this world of addiction to meth.
Not one of his better films then, because his focus is on too big a subject to really be able to be precise, but it still works because he does capture an array of lives across the spectrum all connected by the shared negative impact of crystal meth. The film doesn't judge anyone but there is a good spread of those who feel sorry for and those you feel angry at – just like the reality of the addiction, not everyone has a sad story, but the vast majority do. I went into this film due to Breaking Bad but by the end of it I was thinking more of The Wire, specifically the dialogue about not being able to call the fight against drugs a war because "wars end"; this film captures the impact of the problems on a very human level and it is hard to see an end to it. Depressing but engaging.
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