Is there anything more difficult to get right in movies than addiction? If it's not the laughable lies of Reefer Madness it's the screeching mod gymnastics of Valley of the Dolls or a Tyler Perry melodrama where Rudy Huxtable turns tricks for dope. When handled well, it's often by stylists like Steve McQueen or Danny Boyle giving you Michael Fassbender's rigorously aestheticized sex-bulimic in Shame or hyper British heroin addicts and a '90s techno soundtrack in Trainspotting. Pulling back and letting in some natural light isn't usually on the agenda.
But indie filmmaker Ira Sachs just did that, literally so by employing Dogtooth cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (shot in Super 16mm instead of everybody's new favorite digital stuff) and emotionally with a directorial style that focuses less on the grimy histrionics of hitting bottom and more on the everyday-ness of a relationship where crack is the not so secret third boyfriend.
When free-spirited documentary director Erik (Danish actor Thure Lindhardt) meets literary agency lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth from Damages) it appears that opposites are attracting in the usual way. But in time the artist has to save the Company Man from a debilitating drug habit. Except he can't save him at all. Paul disappears for days and sometimes weeks, crashing in expensive hotels, entertaining a parade of male hustlers. Meanwhile Erik holds on, dependent on the chaos after years of living with it. They fight in endless circles (the communication-killing "Don't start" and "Please don't hate me" get thrown around a lot by these guys), they scream in the street, break up, have make-up sex, live through interventions, rehab, failing at rehab, and even more fighting. During one of these battles, Erik bangs a metal bowl against his own head in frustration. Paul fails to see the analogous self-harm of this action.
The mundane despair of real people experiencing the real -- if comfortably moneyed -- consequences of addiction (the movie is semi-autobiographical and for "Paul's" take on it you can go read the memoirs Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man and Ninety Days by Sach's ex-boyfriend Bill Clegg) are on full display and the effect is less cathartic or catastrophic than matter-of-fact sad. They're petulant and enabling and needy and heroic, never all at once and never consistently, just like the way people are. It doesn't exactly count as entertainment, it's more like a series of instructional films on what to watch out for when you enter that next relationship. But as dark, moving drama about all the traps that can doom love to death, it's one of the best of the year.