Head up high, feet on the ground: 16 onscreen drug trips that don’t go over the top

Head up high, feet on the ground: 16 onscreen drug trips that don’t go over the top

1. Louie’s wasted afternoon: Louie, “Dogpound” (2010)
It isn’t easy to visually replicate the singular, internal experience of being high, which is why television and movies usually default to a handful of tropes: psychedelic imagery, weird camera angles and cuts, and often, overblown histrionics and hilariously off-base sequences like Helen Hunt throwing herself through a window after trying PCP. Although these techniques are somewhat useful for depicting the stoned mindset, they’re rarely used as deftly as they need to be to really capture the nebulous nature of a chemically altered state. Trying to make an onscreen drug trip realistic and funny (to someone other than the person who’s high, that is) presents a whole other set of challenges, which the first-season Louie episode “Dogpound” rises to admirably. Sure, Louis C.K.’s first time smoking weed in years involves its share of jumpy editing and weird imagery, but it’s combined in a way that reflects how confusing and distracting simple things can become after a giant bong rip of quality bud—things like whether that dog’s been there the whole time, and wasn’t he brown and white before? Louie’s obnoxious stoner neighbor doesn’t make things easy on him, either, offering vague, hard-to-track observations—not to mention a pull of vodka to help “even him out”—and once he brings out the “motor bong,” Louie’s grip on reality all but disappears, dissolving into a series of half-memories and bewildering images. Perhaps most realistic of all, though, is how little fun Louie has on his trip, which turns out to be a less-than-ideal way of counteracting the depression he battles throughout the episode. 

2. Jesse tries heroin: Breaking Bad, “Mandala” (2009)
AMC’s chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin drama is composed of a series of personal low ebbs, but “Mandala” finds its core cast in some of the deepest valleys of Breaking Bad’s run. The episode opens with the death of a supporting player, a development that leads Walter White to make a Faustian bargain with buttoned-down devil Gustavo Fring. It’s all enough to make a shattered person like Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) grope for a way to take the considerable edge off, an itch his recovering junkie girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), reluctantly scratches. Adam Bernstein’s direction pays long, lingering attention to the process of shooting up, simultaneously conveying Jesse’s anxiety about trying heroin and Jane’s meticulous, practiced attention to the particulars. What follows borders on hallucinatory cliché, but it’s salvaged by the sequence’s overriding sense of euphoria. The choice of soundtrack—The Platters’ gossamer “Enchanted”—goes a long way toward contributing to that sensation, while the sight of a writhing Jane below a levitating Jesse keeps one foot planted in reality. “Mandala” accurately conveys the escape heroin represents to someone like Jesse, illustrating along the way why he and Jane would risk dependency and possible overdose just to feel that bliss for a short while. 

3. Lindsay tries marijuana: Freaks And Geeks, “Chokin’ And Tokin’” (2000)
Some people don’t react well to marijuana, and Freaks And Geeks’ Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is one of those people. In “Chokin’ And Tokin’,” Lindsay experimentally smokes some of the weed her boyfriend Nick (Jason Segel) has given her before remembering that she agreed to babysit the neighbor’s kid. Anxiety and paranoia set in, so Lindsay recruits her level-headed friend Millie (Sarah Hagan) to watch over the kid (whom Lindsay senses can tell she’s high) while she reads up on the effects of cannabis in the encyclopedia, reassuring herself that she probably won’t die. After contemplating the universe and reminiscing about old times with Millie, Lindsay finds solace in a bowl of cereal. Real-life lesson: Don’t get high before you have to do anything even remotely important. 

4. ’Shrooming in Vegas: Knocked Up (2007)
As demonstrated in Freaks And Geeks, Judd Apatow tends to take a pretty grounded approach to the effects of drug use. In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) and Pete (Paul Rudd) initially have a great time on mushrooms in Vegas, as they check into a swanky hotel, don suits, and enjoy a show, all while demonstrating that hallucinogens don’t necessarily turn the user into a gibbering, tripped-out fool. However, Cirque du Soleil proves to be too much for Ben, and the two end up back in the room, where they contemplate their love lives while scrutinizing the wide selection of chairs. In Apatow’s world, drugs are something smart, decent people can sample without ruining their lives, but also something that can’t be fully enjoyed when responsibility looms. 

5. Cemetery acid trip: Easy Rider (1969) 
The build-up to the famed cemetery acid-trip sequence in Easy Rider, shot on the fly and without permission in New Orleans’ St. Louis #1 cemetery, helps sell the verity of a bad LSD experience as much as the chaotic blur of jump cuts, in-camera effects, and Method wailing on display. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s bikers wind up in the cemetery on the tail end of an all-night bender that begins with the two boozing down Bourbon Street in the afternoon and evening, and continues the next morning, when they pick up two hookers (Karen Black and Toni Basil) at a brothel and head off to the cemetery to drop acid together. Already disoriented and blitzed from a wild night on the town, Fonda, Hopper, and their two guests are particularly susceptible to the drug’s effects, which here have a weeping Fonda referring to a Catholic statue as his mother, and the ladies touching the gravestones in sensual delight. Local Catholics were not amused by the hippie desecration: The archdiocese was so outraged by the stolen footage that no features were ever allowed to shoot in St. Louis #1 again. 

6. Swanky acid trip: Mad Men, “Far Away Places” (2012)
When taking hallucinogens, setting plays a big part in what sort of turns the trip will take. While the cemetery environment in Easy Rider lends that trip certain spiritual and morbid overtones, Roger Sterling’s first encounter with Timothy Leary’s teachings is much less epic and scary, though no less revelatory. When Roger (John Slattery) and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jane (Peyton List) take their laced sugar cubes at the behest of Jane’s psychiatrist, the plush, calm environs of the doctor’s swanky apartment—complete with her sober husband acting as lifeguard—allows for a low-key, almost serene dive into their own egos. After experiencing some funny audiovisual hallucinations prompted by the items surrounding him—a magazine, a mirror, a bottle of liquor—Roger winds his way toward a place of total self-awareness, along with Jane, as the two of them come to the co-realization that their marriage is over. But perhaps the most realistic part of their LSD experience comes the following morning, when both of them not only remember the details of their trip, but also recognize the ultimate truthfulness of the insight they found there.

7. The ’ludes kick in: Modern Romance (1981)
When talking about drug humor, Albert Brooks isn’t the first comedian of his generation who comes to mind. That only adds to the surprise of the funniest scene in Modern Romance—Brooks’ second movie as a writer-director-star—in which he plays a film editor in the middle of a drawn-out romantic breakup that’s like a slow-motion car crash. Desperate to just make it through the night, Brooks takes Quaaludes given to him by his assistant (Bruno Kirby), and, in a robe that makes him look like a swingin’ monk, shuffles around his house in a foggy daze, describing everything he’s doing in a nasal running commentary (“I want to hear some music. God, I have so many great albums! Here’s an album”), and phoning up people from his past to tell them how much he cares about them. He even phones Kirby to tell him that he loves him—“In the right way”—and, while he has him on the phone, to put in an order for some more ’ludes: “Maybe a hundred?”

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8. A gentle explosion: Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
In Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, Matt Dillon plays the leader of a small gang of petty thieves who loot pharmacies to feed their drug habits. When they all pile into a car with their latest haul, Dillon takes full advantage of his status within the group by getting high in the back seat instead of waiting until they get back to the house. Dillon’s mother (Grace Zabriskie) tells him and his wife (Kelly Lynch) that it’s high time they learned to continue to “act as children, who want to do nothing but run and play,” and Dillon’s trip is visualized with simple, infantile animation—complete with a cow that looks as if it might very well jump over the moon, and a flying house that may have touched down in Van Sant’s next movie, My Own Private Idaho. Perhaps that’s the director’s way of conceding that Zabriskie does have their number.

9. Musical magic: Killing Zoe (1994)
Most of the armed bank robbers in Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe seem to think they’re in a movie, and it’s impossible to say for sure whether this is because they’re still high from having blithely used heroin and cocaine the night before the heist, or if both the robbery and the drugs are indicators of their indifference to the possible consequences of their actions. One of the junkie robbers tells his new colleague, Eric Stoltz, that “chasing the dragon” will make him feel as if “the rest of the world is in a bubble of glass, and you are rubbing up against it like a bad windshield wiper.” Stoltz takes this in, shrugs, and says, what the hell, he’ll try it anyway. When Stoltz first inhales, there’s a moment where his head looks as it’s made of Silly Putty, but the real kicker comes when he and his gang are in a club listening to a jazz band, as he looks up to see bright-blue cartoon musical notes floating gaily from their instruments.

10. The Dude’s daily haze: The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coens’ hazy neo-noir riff The Big Lebowski earns every inch of its “stoner classic” pedigree. And it manages to do so without really featuring all that much pot-smoking. Instead, Lebowski apprehends the bleary fog of being perpetually high. Every minor task becomes a Herculean labor. Every movement is part of some needlessly complicated criminal conspiracy. Within this fuzzy tapestry, one scene rings as particularly stoner-ish: After receiving a free checkup from an especially “thorough” doctor, Jeff Bridges’ Dude drives home in his battered Ford Torino, smoking a joint, drinking a beer, and pounding the roof to the rhythm of Credence Clearwater Revival. Distracted by a VW bug trailing him, the Dude drops his joint into his crotch, puts it out with the beer, and ends up peeling into a bunch of trashcans. Besides perfectly capturing the subtle paranoia and the difficulty of doing anything while stoned, the short scene underlines something that’s easy to forget about Lebowski: Even without all the half-baked, boneheaded schemes swirling around him, the Dude is an utter incompetent.

11. Cocaine-party euphoria: Boogie Nights (1997)
As Rick James put it in the Chappelle’s Show sketch that launched a thousand memes, “Cocaine is a helluva drug.” For one thing, it gets users really high, boosting their egos and making them feel like God, if God were high on coke. It also produces—especially in excess—a jittery volatility that’s almost inherently dramatic. Maybe no movie gets this better than P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, especially in the scene where Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, and Thomas Jane nervously buy a bunch of coke from Alfred Molina’s sweaty, mustachioed dealer. Anderson perfectly splits the tension down the middle of the room, with Molina embodying the ecstatic fearlessness of being thoroughly keyed-up, and the trio of buyers capturing everything about the nervousness and agitation. Scored to tacky ’80s pop hits “Sister Christian” and “Jessie’s Girl,” the scene’s mounting pressure feels like it can only erupt into violence, with the rest of the film that follows it playing, fittingly, like the long, brutal hangover after a night of too many lines.

12. Heroin overdose: Trainspotting (1996)
An awful lot of Trainspotting tends toward the mildly silly side of visualizing drug experiences, whether protagonist Ewan McGregor is diving into the underwater vastness of a filthy toilet to retrieve a lost suppository, or hallucinating dead babies on the ceiling. It’s all beautifully shot, but it’s more stylistic than realistic. But the scene where McGregor overdoses and slides into a carpet-lined pit in the floor—a subjective pit from which he looks up, dazed and delirious, as his dealer hauls him downstairs to a taxi, which dumps him at the emergency room—uses that entirely stylistic approach to get at some familiar aspects of the drug experience. The fixed ideas (in this case, that he’s looking up from in a hole in his dealer’s floor, even when his physical location and orientation radically change), the curious calm, the disconnect from events, the internal rhythms that seem more interesting and significant than the outside world—all of them are true to one kind of drug experience. And the sedate strains of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” which play incongruously through the scene as McGregor nearly dies, then emerges into a reality of shame and punishment, are an ironic complement, addressing how the mood of a drug trip can override all exterior concerns.

13. Raoul Duke checks in, wigs out: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
In spite of some exaggerated elements, few films capture the LSD experience as well as Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The scene where Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke is trying to check into the hotel while tripping balls does it best. The utter confusion and mortal terror of trying to complete even the most mundane tasks when dealing with other people is perfectly depicted: The use of some clever camera work illustrates the sudden shifts of focus people experience on acid, but without resorting to gimmicky “psychedelic” effects. It also gives the whole scene a subtle sense of surrealism that should be well familiar to anyone who’s ever chewed up blotter. When director Terry Gilliam does bust out the CGI, it’s mostly done well, as in the crazy patterned floor that comes alive, and the weird facial distortions that are realistic enough to trigger flashbacks. Sure, elements like the desk clerk’s head turning into a moray eel and Depp’s ludicrous pantomiming are over the top, but it gets so much of the rest of it right that it’s easy to forgive those transgressions.

14. Wonder joints to the rescue: Revenge Of The Nerds (1984)
The big party scene in Revenge Of The Nerds starts out painful: The nerds are desperate to impress U.N. Jefferson, the head of the fraternity that they want to become a part of, and the party is going horribly. Nobody’s dancing, the music is terrible, and the sorority girls who were supposed to show up didn’t. They get desperate, with one nerd suggesting, “Maybe we should eat.” Another says, “Maybe we should watch TV.” But it’s Booger, played with gleeful grossness by Curtis Armstrong, who delivers one of the movie’s classic lines: “Hey guys! Wonder joints!” The entire party gets high and loosens up considerably. For a room full of people with social anxiety, it provides a lubricant for fun, dancing, and even some making out, but without over-the-top freak-outs. Sure, it’s a little unrealistic that an entire room full of nerds would just agree to smoke a bunch of weed, but hey, 1984 was a different time.

15. Sloppy stoner: Smiley Face (2007)
In Smiley Face, indie bad boy Gregg Araki depicts being stoned realistically, though irreverently: It isn’t a transformative, mind-boggling experience, but rather a prolonged state of overwhelmed, confused sloppiness. Anna Faris’ stoned slacker protagonist is defined by a heroic lack of self-consciousness: After consuming a pile of marijuana cupcakes, she stumbles obliviously through a world that grows more perplexing by the moment, playing havoc with her already-shaky ability to function as a proper grown-up. The film is likewise sensitive to the mild paranoia of the pot experience, seen in Faris’ strong, somewhat justified conviction that everyone knows she’s high—though, to be fair, she isn’t exactly doing a great job masking her true state.

16. The music gets louder: Groove (2000)
The movie around Hamish Linklater’s maiden ecstasy trip in Groove isn’t so great, but it’s easily one of the most realistic trips on film. He takes the drug, then waits around nervously for it to kick in. Then he suddenly perks up, asking, “Did somebody just turn up the music?” It’s a familiar phenomenon to anyone who spent formative years taking pills stamped with Mercedes logos in decrepit warehouses: Not only does the music get louder, it’s also somehow more immediate, and it sounds like God himself is in charge of the EQ. From there, the film follows Linklater through a checklist of first-time rolling experiences: the uncomfortable intensity of the initial rush; the deep, confessional conversations with friends and strangers; a need to introduce himself to everyone around him; chewing gum and/or smoking like a madman. It even manages to nail the sweaty, over-amped look that’s unmistakable to anyone who’s ever done it. It might not seem all that impressive to the uninitiated, but anyone who’s ever been there and done that will immediately recognize the verisimilitude.

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