Overview: Three heroin junkies embark on a increasingly ludicrous and dangerous search for a fix in Los Angeles. Falco Ink; 2017; Not Rated; 75 minutes.
Just One Fix: Tommy’s done the math. He estimates that if he’s spent about three hours a day waiting for his dealer, that adds up to about 50 days a year of nothing but waiting. Multiply that by 19 years and you have 950 days. That’s almost three years of the prime of his life wasted “waiting to get well.” Not that he misses it much. For a junkie who needs a fix – and Tommy always does – the only time is right now. So when his heroine dealer suddenly disappears, Tommy and his two friends Blake and TJ set off on a withdrawal-fueled odyssey across the sun-baked streets of Los Angeles. Tommy Swerdlow’s A Thousand Junkies is a near master-class in tone, pacing, and character-driven pathos. That this was his first feature film is astonishing. That this was his first feature film after penning the screenplays for such kid-friendly pablum as Cool Runnings and Snow Dogs is a miracle.
California Dreamin’: There’s a temptation to compare the film to the works of Tarantino and Kevin Smith since most of the movie is literally just a handful of guys hanging out and talking about whatever pops into their heads. But if I had to compare it to one film, it would be Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), another film about a socially ostracized outsider stalking the streets of Los Angeles in the search of someone. Both films begin largely as comedies. Baker’s protagonist, transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), rampages up and down the strip looking for her cheating boyfriend/pimp, leaving all sorts of emotional destruction and drama in her wake. A Thousand Junkies’ beginning is more subdued, but it’s no less ludicrous: one of the first scenes shows the trio fondly remembering the best bathrooms in the area to shoot up in (“Remember that coffee house on Beverly…when it had that big purple velvet armchair?” “It was like shooting up in a Turkish whorehouse!”). Later, as they search for a new dealer, they grow increasingly frantic and frenzied, getting into one-sided car chases on the freeway and eventually joining forces with an obnoxious Russian dweeb with a roll of expired drug contacts.
But crucially, both Tangerine and A Thousand Junkies gradually abandon their sophomoric shenanigans for more meaty, emotional material that cuts like a knife. Whereas the emotional center of Tangerine comes in the form of a lounge performance, A Thousand Junkies finds its own in three scenes where each junkie tries to steal from or extort their family members. By the time Tommy (played by Swerdlow) threatens his young daughter when she doesn’t steal $100 from his wife’s purse, we realize that the movie hasn’t been funny for a long, long time. And when in the throes of withdrawal Blake (Blake Heron) — a military veteran — seriously suggests they rob a major Russian dealer, we realize that these jonesing fools are crazy enough to do it. Our amusement turned to concern now turns to horror. We know they can’t pull it off. But we know they’re sick enough to at least try it.
Overall: A Thousand Junkies is that rare film to expertly balance lunacy with pathos, dread and light-heartedness. It doesn’t strive to say anything new about the experience of being an addict. It isn’t a PSA or a cautionary tale. It’s a story that, while at time preposterous, has only one logical conclusion. And to the film’s credit, it goes there. And unfortunately that ending is probably why it will never get picked up by a major distributor. The industry usually frowns upon so much truth. And A Thousand Junkies tells no lies, only a few amusing exaggerations.
Featured Image: Falco Ink