Built for Speed: The 6 Best Amphetamine-Fueled Films

We love our stimulants. Just walk into any convenience store and you'll be greeted with fresh coffee, coolers full of caffeinated soft drinks, racks of energy drinks, No-Doze pills, and the like. You won't find speed at the corner store, but amphetamines have been part of American life for the better part of a century, and despite being demonized and criminalized, they show no sign of going away.

Meth can let you work double-shifts at the factory or spend a night doing painstaking detail work, or if you're an Air Force pilot, keep you alert for hours. It can also turn you into a twitching, scratching, paranoid with bizarre obsessions and poor personal hygiene. Like all drugs, it's very much a double-edged sword.

At any given time, several hundred thousand people are using meth and millions more are popping prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. That social fact is reflected in our cinema, which has seen a burst of meth-related movies in the past few years that are less a celebration of the drug than a stunned observation of its impact. Here are six of the most gripping takes on meth.

1. Bug (2006). Ashley Judd gives a dynamite and spooky performance as Agnes White, a waitress at an Oklahoma lesbian bar who lives at a nearby motel and snorts meth and boozes to deal with the pain of a missing child. But it's when Agnes encounters Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a drifting, recently discharged soldier, that the film becomes an extended metaphor for the paranoia and delusions of the meth life. Peter thinks invisible insects are in his skin, his teeth, everywhere! That's a classic meth delusion, and Agnes finds herself increasingly swallowed up by it. The move gets very intense as the deranged couple careen toward total flameout.

2. Requiem for a Dream (2000). Based on the eponymous novel by Hubert Selby and directed by Darren Aronofsky, this movie is all about loneliness, hopelessness and addiction, and not just speed. Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sara Goldfarb, who starts taking prescribed amphetamines because she wants to look thin for a potential television appearance, is a chilling rendition of the descent into tweaked-out madness. Just remember: If you see any killer refrigerators on the move, just pop a few more pills.

3. Salton Sea (2002). Val Kilmer stars as a jazz musician who becomes a speed freak in a bid to get revenge on a pair of crooked cops who killed his wife during a drug rip-off. This is a dark and twisted piece of amphetamine noir, full of demented characters like Bobby the meth dealer, who has sampled his own wares for too long, feels bugs under his skin and arms himself with a spear gun to fight off Plastic Man. Then there's Pooh Bear, a desert meth bigwig who has snorted so much gack his nose has rotted off. But the movie also has its comic moments, especially when the tweakers, led by Kujo (Adam Goldberg), plot a ridiculous heist that doesn't quite go as planned. And it has a handy capsule history of meth.

4. Spun (2002). This "ultimate speed freaks' tale" of a group of Southwestern tweakers on a multi-day binge features Jason Schwartzman as Ross, a meth user who hangs out with his dealer, Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), until Mike gets too messed up and can't find his product. Ross then hooks up with Nikki (Brittany Murphy), the stripper girlfriend of the Cook (Mickey Rourke) and does lots more speed while forgetting he has another stripper tied naked to his bed. This film has great characters, great acting and twitchy editing, not to mention great depictions of the meth high, and even the cops are on speed. The screenplay is by William De Los Santos, who based it  on his life in the Eugene, Oregon drug subculture, and it rings true. It's pretty funny in spots, too.

5. Vanishing Point (1971). This one isn't recent, but it's speed-heavy — a "carploitation" flick featuring a former soldier and cop ("dishonorably discharged") and all-around rebel named Kowalski (Barry Newman), whose task is to drive a Dodge Charger non-stop from Denver to California while being pursued by the law. How does he do it? "Now he uses speed to get himself up, to get himself gone," the trailer announces. A great, exciting flick with speed (velocity), speed (the drug), stunning cinematography, and a musical appearance by Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.

6. Winter's Bone (2010). While meth doesn't get as much screentime here as the other films on this list, it is central to the plot and the ominous atmosphere in this Academy Award-nominated rural crime thriller. Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree, a teenager in a desperate search to find her low-life, meth-dealing, snitching father and save the family home. She runs up against some rough characters as she snoops around an Ozarks drug culture that isn't really interested in being unveiled. This is a most excellent pic.


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