JDIFF 2012 Out of the Past Cinema Review: The Panic in Needle Park, starring Al Pacino

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival

Out of the Past: The Panic in Needle Park

Wednesday, 22nd February, 5:30pm, Cineworld 

Cautionary tales are a tricky thing to get right, especially when the subject matter is drug use, the temptation for the material to get heavy handed is always there and skill must be taken to ensure that while not condoning the lifestyle, the film doesn’t just become a sermon.

For the majority of its running time The Panic in Needle Park views its characters in a detached manner. Glimpses of intimacy between its central pair, the streetwise but permanently small fry Bobby and naive and sympathetic Helen are there, but the film covers a lot of ground in their relationship so the courtship is sketched rather than painstakingly pored over. This suits the subject of the film, the relationship begins like the giddy rush of drug use when parties stretch on for days and in that heady context the wastrels and prostitutes which surround the couple are given a worldly bohemian glow. While not glamorised in any real way the initial stages of the film do have a charming air. Pacino is at his best in these scenes, conveying Bobby’s roguishness that when divorced from the practicalities of what he actually does would make him quite seductive to the sheltered and introverted Helen. It’s not long before the inevitable comedown as we see Helen descend into a seedy lifestyle of her own, turning tricks to score drugs and become the main breadwinner .

In a post-Trainspotting world this arc is quite standard and as an audience we can see the beats as they come, anticipating the debasement we get on the screen. For its time I have no doubt it was shocking and a milestone regarding its themes and was greatly influential but it is more interesting for the impact it made rather than for its actual content. Some lovely moments are undercut by a narrative that stretches on for too long, the ups and downs of Helen and Bobby soon become quite wearying and it definitely overstays its welcome as in its latter moments the whole thing loses narrative focus and indulges some cliches and overly moralistic asides.

As Pacino’s second ever acting role The Panic in Needle Park is an interesting curio for fans of his, however it is surprising that as the film becomes more dramatic and pointed his performance falters a bit.

Kitty Winn on the other hand is a revelation throughout and the finest performance on screen, her gradual fall from innocence is full of nuance and it makes her the most tragic figure of all. She very much deserved her Best Actress win at Cannes that year for her work here. As an artifact of the 70s the film is very much of its time, and shows us the curdling of the ’60s hippie ideal of recreational drug use into a more desperate arena of shooting up and getting strung out. The dream was over well before the panic started.

 Emmet O’Brien

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