Addiction at the Movies: Puncture

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Puncture, a new film by Adam and Mark Kassen, does one important thing extremely well: it creates a drug-addicted character that refuses to fit into a Hollywood addiction pigeonhole. Traditionally, addicts in movies tend to fall into two stereotypical camps: the poverty-stricken (Boyz n the Hood, The Panic in Needle Park, Trainspotting), whose addiction is depicted as an inevitable outcome of a life of deprivation; and the celebrity addict (Ray, Gia, The Doors, The Runaways) for whom substance abuse is just one unfortunate piece of baggage carried along the road to fame.

Michael Weiss, Puncture’s protagonist (an actual 1990s Houston lawyer played by Chris Evans) is anything but stereotypical. He is an intelligent but unknown attorney working obsessively on a case against the big, bad medical supply company whose unsafe plastic needles are causing thousands of accidental needle sticks – and the infections that come with them – per year. In other words, Weiss is a “good guy,” fighting to save innocent lives. He isn’t trapped in a drug-ridden universe of fame or poverty; on the contrary, his colleagues and friends – a devoted law partner, a practical inventor, an angelic but HIV-infected nurse – are the respectable denizens of the hard-working middle class. Yet Weiss purposefully surrounds himself with pimps, prostitutes, and other individuals with whom he can use drugs.

So how did Weiss’s addiction begin? The film doesn’t tell us; all we know is that drug use has somehow become a major part of his life, serving as a substitute for family or intimate relationships. Throughout the film we see Weiss smoking, popping pills, shooting heroin, and snorting cocaine—in cars, in bathrooms, and during midnight brainstorm sessions. Although his use does cause him to miss meetings and depositions, Weiss is the quintessential functioning addict; he remains a brilliant attorney and a muscled “health nut,” gently chastising his partner about “drinking all that soda.” Given these wholesome characteristics, Weiss’s colleagues brush his misbehaviors off as quirks and lapses.

Then, the unraveling begins. At the behest of a state senator, Weiss briefly attempts to get clean, but predictably, his self-reliant personality refuses to ask for help. Are we surprised? Of course not—up until now, Weiss has always been able to accomplish whatever he sets his mind to do. Nevertheless, trying to detox alone is no small endeavor. As soon as Weiss discovers that his dizzy and sweating self isn’t as lively a lawyer as his coke-fueled self, he begins using again and eventually overdoses. No one intervenes to help because no one realizes he’s addicted. Towards the end of the film, Weiss’s partner – with whom he spent every workday and countless late nights on the case – explains with genuine shock that he had been completely unaware of Weiss’s drug abuse. As with so many individuals struggling with drugs and alcohol, Weiss was living parallel lives—and in one of them, he was completely alone with his addiction.

By spotlighting the contradictory character of Michael Weiss, Puncture does what more and more movies are doing and should continue to do; it depicts a fresh, if incomplete, characterization of addiction. The film is imperfect and includes some painfully underdeveloped characters—Weiss’s battle with addiction is defined more by his outer tics (sniffing and head-rubbing) than by indications of inner emotional turmoil. Also, the film’s ending and it’s tagline dedication to the real Mike Weiss (“Madman. Genius. Friend. Druggie. Lawyer.”) contribute more to a reductive martyrdom than to a fleshed-out portrait of addiction and tragic loss. Nevertheless, Puncture is successful in that it defies addict stereotypes. Can a tattooed, tuxedoed, juice-chugging, gym-going, idealistic lawyer really succumb to addiction? Of course he can.

The bottom line is that addiction can and does affect anyone. Sure, it’s a problem for many stereotypical gangsters, rock stars, and slackers—but it’s also an issue for teachers, firefighters, accountants, clergy, doctors, and, yes, lawyers. We all know that addiction is a chronic disease that doesn’t discriminate based on factors like class and race. It’s about time Hollywood knew, too.

Emma Edelman
Blog Editor, Phoenix House

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