Sid and Nancy (1986)
111 min. Embassy Home Entertainment. Director: Alex Cox. Cast: Gary Oldman, David Hayman, Xander Berkeley, Perry Benson, Sy Richardson.
The great cinematic surrealist Luis Buñuel remarked in his autobiography My Last Sigh about a double suicide: "perhaps a truly passionate love, a sublime love that's reached a certain peak of intensity, is simply incompatible with life itself. Perhaps it's too great, too powerful. Perhaps it can exist only in death." Alex Cox's 1986 film Sid and Nancy cemented the iconic view of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his groupie lover Nancy Spungen as the Romeo and Juliet of the punk scene..
Told in a succession of vignettes, Sid and Nancy walks a tightrope between realism and expressionism in its attempt to capture the thrust of punk. Wisely, writer-director Cox and his co-screenwriter Abbe Wool don't concern themselves with doing justice to the full range of personality of Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) or the band's impresario Malcolm McLaren (David Hayman). Though they're larger-than-life, complex characters in their own rights, this is the story of Sid (Gary Oldman) and Nancy (Chloe Webb), and there's not a scene in the film that isn't there directly to reflect some aspect of their relationship, a meeting of like-minded but prickly personalities. The film begins at the end, with Sid arrested on suspicion of murder, then swiftly flashes back to the first encounter of the titular couple. When Johnny proves a cold fish, Nancy shifts her attention to Sid, with the film depicting her as his vessel into a sex life and death-defying heroin addiction (she not-so-fairly warns him, "Never trust a junkie": words to live by).As the Sex Pistols rise in prominence, they increasingly live their lyrics, from "Anarchy in the U.K." to "God Save the Queen" ("We mean it man./There is no future/In England's dreamland...When there's no future/How can there be sin?/We're the flowers/In the dustbin"). As an all-but-accidental rock star, Sid shows little interest in craft and his performances under the influence are barely sustainable. Part of his magnetism and mystique as a performer was his literally staggering unpredictablity, his naked self-destruction in his drug and alcohol use and in his ritualistic cutting (those who followed Vicious would turn these blazing burnouts into conventional shock-value showmanship, stage managed for effect). Sid gave greater attention to his unhinged "home" life with Nancy, largely played out in squalid rooms like those in New York's infamous Chelsea Hotel (where Cox films on location, to great effect). The couple endures a downward spiral through sustained "what day is it?" hazes and brief bursts of domestic abuse on the way to the fatal bender of the film's opening and closing movements.
The necessary roughness of a punk couple on smack isn't the whole story: both Sid and Nancy act out, in part, to mask vulnerabilities. Oldman and Webb throw themselves into their roles. True to life, Webb's Nancy is an aggressively abrasive, downright irritating force of nature, but also sympathetically needy of love and wounded by the rejection of her middle-class family (in fairness, she rejected them first to run away and join the punk circus). Oldman's work is even more impressive. Apart from recreating Vicious performances, including vocals, he soulfully embodies Vicious, especially in startling glimpses of the little boy lost beneath the man's off-putting exterior. Oldman's mid-film music-video performance of “My Way” before a neon staircase compares favorably—as a revelation of character through performance—to Robert De Niro's framing monologues in Raging Bull.
Cox injects his own surreal touches to the larger-than-life plane of existence Sid and Nancy share, dada moments like MacLaren firing an audible shot from a gun gesture or dreamlike moments of grace between the lovers, like the punk poetry of garbage raining down on them as they kiss in a NYC alley. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) traffics just as easily in these moments as the realistically grotty ones (Cox adds verisimilitude by shooting in London, Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as New York). Music by men who were there—Joe Strummer, The Pogues, and Pray for Rain—adds immeasurably to the mood, as do Cox's usual suspects in quirky supporting roles (Xander Berkeley as a pivotal drug dealer and Miguel Sandoval delivering the immortally bad rock-song pitch "I Wanna Job").
Sid and Nancy is superficially a story of (kinky) sex, (hard) drugs, and (punk) rock and roll, but Cox and Wool also take care to reach for some meaning in a seemingly senseless tragedy. No aspect of the film better encapsulates the meaning of punk than the scene in which Nancy takes Sid home to meet her bourgeois family, resulting in an absurdist culture clash (Nancy's grandpa turns to a bleary, topless Sid and asks, "So, are you going to make an honest woman out of our Nancy...?"). And Sy Richardson's methadone caseworker speaks for the filmmakers and the audience when he scolds the heroes, “You could be selling healthy anarchy. But as long as you're addicts, you’ll be full of shit.” The film acknowledges the strange glamor of punk amid its ugliness, without underselling in the least the brutal existential horror of Sid and Nancy's diseased "no exit" lifestyle. It's an age-old story of achieving immortality by paying thr ultimate price.