We disappeared inside in the sleeping bag…
Nothing has an odor quite like time…
It smelled of the dark…
A place you could visit, but never stay,
and I don’t know
that one day I am going to die and there is absolutely nothing i can do about it…
— Tommy Swerdlow [Down Dirty Word]
You might never have known that A Thousand Junkies is a movie you need to see. Why? Because no one last year ever told you that you should. No publicist angled to place it strategically in a prestige fest, no film critic championed it hard enough. A lot of them probably looked at this movie and thought, “What do people care about these guys?” Ironic, because that’s the question the movie asks of you — what do YOU care about these guys?
A Thousand Junkies is one of many films waiting to be discovered on Amazon Prime that you might just happen to watch one day for no particular reason other than the tagline caught your attention. But the difference between this film and so many others that are tossed into the streaming seas waiting for someone to find them is this one is actually good. Really good. So good you should stop whatever you’re doing and watch it.
People often ask me what they should watch, what’s good. That’s a hard thing for me to answer because in many ways watching the Oscar race, being involved in it every year, has wrecked a lot of what I used to love about watching movies. If you only ask yourself, “Can this make money or can this win Oscars or will the Academy like this,” then you forget the whole reason you sit down to watch a film in the first place. Here at AwardsDaily, we’re going to step outside of that trench from time to time to highlight films that are just good films, whether they are “awards worthy” or not.
But this film? You should watch. Watch it because I’m telling you to watch it and you know I know what I’m talking about. Watch it because fuck the industry that directs you only towards that which has some kind of marketing hook. Watch it because there is still something to be said for the pure art of the thing. Watch it because, fuck it, in today’s industry terrain, if there is no traditional route for a film to take — if it can’t light the box office on fire, if it’s not a star vehicle, if it isn’t ear-marked for awards — then who is it for? And why should anyone care? Movies are part of a myth-making tradition, but if the filmmakers can’t be made into myths, how do you get anyone to sit down and watch their work?
A Thousand Junkies is the work of first-time director Tommy Swerdlow, who also stars in the film and co-wrote the screenplay, along with one of the film’s other stars, TJ Bowen. It takes place on an ordinary day, on the ordinary streets of Los Angeles, where three hapless, strung-out heroin addicts go through the motions of making enough money score a fix. It is as simple as that. The movie tells that tale, but it also lets us get to know the three main characters who reveal themselves — for better and worse — throughout the course of the film. It isn’t an obvious thing, but the Sisyphean pursuit of something that can ever only be temporary — and dooms people like these to commit to repeating the same awful day, again and again, until one of them dies or they get clean — might be specific to addiction, but it is also a powerful metaphor of life itself. What are we chasing? What do we want? What does it mean when we get it? Is it worth it?
Swerdlow gets LA so right, in ways that most filmmakers attempting to capture this sprawling lost city have rarely done. From the trashy ubiquitous mini-malls, to the trash-littered parking lots, to the beater cars, to the I-5 — everywhere infused as much with Mexican-American culture as it is with the dream factory it’s more famous for. LA is long boulevards that take you across the city through contrasting neighborhoods. It’s crowded freeways, packed and lonely. One of the lines in the film is, “Which Kaiser?” There is an entire interlude in “Simi Valley.” Casual asides and passing details that you might only catch and find funny if you lived here. It is mechanics who sell you a cheap car so they can “use the bread” to publish their novel. It is actors who are junkies. It is actors who know junkies. It is AA meetings, haggard faces sucking cigarettes as the last permissible vice. It is so many American dreamers reaching for vanishing dreams that probably never existed.
Tragically, as it would turn out, one of the actors in A Thousand Junkies, Blake Heron, would die from an overdose after the film’s completion. This awful loss isn’t part of the film, but appears in the sole dedication at the end of it: “For Blake.” Two of these three friends hung on to bear witness to lives they’re willing to lay bare, in all of its candy-bar-stealing, pants-shitting humiliation. One of them couldn’t. That is the somber coda to the film, and it’s an unavoidable one. We know, because everyone knows, that with heroin you either get clean or you get dead.
If you’re seeing the movie in your head right now, you’re probably imagining every other movie you’ve seen about junkies. You think, I’m going to watch them self-destruct, one of them is going to die, end up in jail, bad shit is going down, and I’m going to be miserable. But the funny thing about this movie — and it’s entirely due to the talent behind it — is the story turns out to be exactly the opposite. It’s a movie with too much dark humor, too brilliantly rendered, to spit you back out into the world miserable. You feel for them, you ache for them, but somehow you’re involved in their stories.
Hitchcock once said that audiences are always with the main character, even if what that character is doing is bad. He cited the example of Norman Bates watching Marion Crane’s car sink into the swamp. Hitchcock believed that we as an audience want the car to sink because we’re involved in Norman’s struggle, whether his actions are right or wrong. And so it goes with A Thousand Junkies. We’re supposed to want them never to find the drugs, to go to rehab, to repair their lives and be okay. But we’re also with them in their futile search for cash and drugs.
Swerdlow bluntly wipes away the romanticism of drug addiction, but, at the same time, doesn’t indulge in martyrdom either. He shows you the nuts and bolts and just how mundane the desperation is, and by the end of the thing, makes crystal clear that the high isn’t worth the waste of decades of three precious lives.
The film’s three leads use their real names because they are telling their own stories, more or less. These stories were shared, as so many are, in AA meetings in cities and towns across the country. But if you put talented people together in a room and get them telling their stories, sooner or later seeds will drop, and things will grow.
So yes, this is a movie about three junkies in a world with millions of them. Stolen money, hollow-eyed drug dealers. Children forgotten, lovers discarded, friends betrayed. It’s a movie about people who live in that zone that teeters between life and death, sickness and wellness — a movie about a need that locks you into a world you don’t even have time or energy to be ashamed of anymore. When you’re begging your own daughter for $100 bucks to score drugs, you’ve long since passed the shame marker.
But A Thousand Junkies is also a movie about art itself. Nothing so cliched as “art saves junkies,” but whatever it is that drives people to write things down, to act them out, to communicate those stories back out into the world is essential to the human experience. So many addicts tell themselves that they need the drugs or the booze to fuel the writing, to take them to a place of access, of raw truths — one that strips away fear to reveal their best stuff. That’s surely a lie. All that’s really required is courage to reveal the truth. For writers and a director this talented, the rest takes care of itself.