Docu helmer Michel Negroponte (“Jupiter’s Wife”) trains his unflinching camera on a group of eight heroin addicts at a New York City treatment center for “Methadonia.” Seldom directly confronting the controversy over methadone, which substitutes one form of addiction for another, pic nevertheless reps a disturbing look at the indefinite limbo inhabited by methadone’s supposedly transient users. HBO docu, skedded to air Oct. 6 as part of the “America Undercover” series, should rekindle the ongoing debate.
Methadone as a treatment has been around for 40 years — indeed, William Burroughs, always in the avant garde of addiction, was writing about it several years before that — and has been subjected to the same kinds of criticisms as those leveled at frontal lobotomies and shock treatment. As a means to control a social problem, its efficacy is indisputable. Yet methadone, aka “liquid handcuffs,” belongs to that category of cures that are arguably as bad as the disease, providing most of the downer aspects of heroin and none of the rush.
Recently, the landscape of methadonia has changed drastically. Not only are higher doses encouraged, but patients have discovered that when combined with cheaply available benzodiazepines like Xanax or Klonopin, methadone can engender a heroin-like euphoria that is doubly addictive.
Aside from data provided in voiceover by helmer Negroponte himself, information about methadone can be gleaned from the addicts’ own conflicted attitudes toward the drug and their corollary struggles with “benzos.”
Attempting to validate the humanity of its subjects, docu’s gospel and jazz soundtrack instead underscores their suffering, reinforcing a “wretched of the earth” view of addiction. Most seen here have been clean and then relapsed countless times earlier, Ping-Ponging in and out of rehabs and detoxes, several during the 18-month course of the film’s shoot.
Mario and Bill have been off heroin upward of 30 years but still depend upon methadone and/or benzo. Even the most inspirational character, the indefatigable leader and counselor Millie, drug-free and methadone-free for a full nine years, could only escape her methadone-supported purgatory after the deaths of two husbands and her own heart attack.
A certain degree of suspense has the viewer rooting for the users as they seek stability, if not sobriety. Susie’s pregnancy is beset with complex medical problems, but also fraught with uncertainties as to whether Social Services will take the child away from her and her similarly addicted husband Eddie.
Negroponte often shoots in extreme close-ups, forcing the audience into a confrontational intimacy with those whom it normally would avoid seeing. Although the strategy is initially effective, it ultimately grants the addicts little control over the frame, sometimes reducing them to mere collections of symptoms.