Just say (Paci)No.
Before THE GODFATHER, there was an actor called Al Pacino.
Francis Ford Coppolla would fight to have Pacino cast as Michael Corleone on the strength of his only starring feature film performance at the time – as the junkie in THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK. The rest, as they say, is omerta.
Before he ruled the world as coke-addled Tony Montana, Pacino here is heroin addict Bobby, who hooks up with fellow addict Helen (Kitty Winn, unbelievably sexy in that plain 70’s-wench way), and we follow their directionless misadventures scoring and whoring in a traffic-choked, skagadelic corner of New York City tagged “Needle Park.”
It’s fun seeing Pacino as yet unsullied by the infamy and celebrity of his most famous role; a young Method man aiming for the edge, carrying this movie on his sunken shoulders. Amusingly, Richard Bright (who would play Al’s faithful liege in all three GODFATHER films) is here as Al’s older junkie brother, an ad hoc caretaker in lieu of parents, seemingly more organized than his shiftless brother – more organized at stealing money for scoring drugs, that is…Jerry Schatzberg directs PANIC in that non-intrusive, documentary style; even the mids and closeups are done from afar with zoom lenses, leaving the characters to just “be.” Pacino, compelling intensity, disturbing forcefulness, resembles a young Dustin Hoffman at times. Movie never flinches in its frank depiction of addiction, from the mean needles to the dingy apartments, from the big-talking wannabes to the small-thinking pimps. (To those who seek comparisons between PANIC and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Aronofsky’s REQUIEM is more stylized, glossy, while PANIC is like raw nerves exposed.)
PANIC answers our pondering on what draws junkies together; living one day to the next, early 20s and hope-less. It’s the fact that the other person doesn’t challenge you to get well; that there will be no questions or hassles as they ride along with your habit. The fact that you are on heroin, the hassles will come in a thousand other ways. The “panic” in Needle Park is the diminishing supply of heroin and how the junkie community deals with it.
There’s no real ending to this tale. At some point, Bobby goes to jail. When he exits, he looks a couple of years older, and Helen is waiting for him outside the walls. We are reminded of THE GRADUATE’s enigmatic ending when Bobby walks off, turns to the waiting Helen and prods, “Well?” She follows dutifully, at a distance. It’s the eternal “What now?” moment. This man who had no future or forward momentum is being given another shot at life.
It’s an offer he can’t refuse.