The Addiction
Reviewed in October 1999
Director: Abel Ferrara. Cast: Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Michael Imperioli. Screenplay: Nicholas St. John.

Photo © 1995 October Films
Abel Ferrara's ambitious vampire movie presents its powerful, unforgiving images of bloodsucking as a sort of skeleton key, attempting to unlock through the metaphor of vampirism, or blood-addiction, the baffling appetites that humans have historically shown for genocide, narcotics, sex, and arcane moral philosophy. If that mixture itself sounds rather baffling, consider it your first clue that The Addiction is not your average horror movie, though Ferrara does not stint on visual shocks. Ultimately, he has stewed a thick, potent recipe that even he cannot adequately digest, and the film's conclusion is opaque to the point of cravenness. Before those final, damaging moments, however, The Addiction works startlingly well along the dark, unexpected terms it maps for itself.

Lili Taylor stars as Kathleen Conklin, a Ph.D. student in philosophy growing further and further dissatisfied with the moral logic of the twentieth century. How can a war-crimes trial assign exclusive guilt for mass atrocities to a single person, or a single group of people? How can the global society pretend to view its history as a past event, remembered by but separate from the people and experiences of the present? Taylor is puzzling over these problems one evening on her way home through the dank, throbbing streets of downtown New York. Suddenly, a woman dressed in a long, gossamer dress and scarf pulls Kathleen into a sort of subterranean alleyway. The assailant, played by Annabella Sciorra, dares Taylor to send her away. In her terror, however—or perhaps, the film suggests, for other, more haunting reasons—Kathleen cannot produce the words to ward off her attacker, and Sciorra claims her victim. Taylor is shattered by the incident, but gradually, she seems to derive a strange sort of strength, a renewed but terrible vigor, from the mysterious changes in her body. Not only does Kathleen sense a profound alteration in her physical self, but her intellect begins to follow dark new directions, imrobably illuminating the rhetorical and ethical tangles in the texts she has sought to understand.

The Addiction, filmed from an original script by Nicholas St. John, admirably cultivates its dense, extravagant array of themes into real and compelling drama. Names like Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger whiz through the air like midnight bats, but Ferrara demonstrates actual interest in the ideas, rather than mere self-congratulation at trotting out such hefty names. The dual threads of Taylor's descent into monstrousness and her elevated scholarly abilities also hold together remarkably well. The character's exaggerated sensitivity to her body and its needs appears to engender a simultaneous sensitivity to her mental capacities; to nurture one becomes automatically to nurture the other, suggesting a perverse sort of twinship between blood and knowledge.

Ferrara, along with Big Night cinematographer Ken Kelsch, situates the film in exactly the right atmosphere of dreadful excitement, coating Gotham after dark in a tantalizing sootiness that makes the buildings, bodies, and walkways as textured and palpable as they must appear to Taylor, newly attuned as she is to the physical presence of things. The camera in this film is forever rounding corners—of sidewalks, of doorways, of bookstacks—so that each new scene feels like a discovery. Ferrara and Kelsch approximate for us the protagonist's sense of constant revelation, as though merely passing through the world serially offers up new discoveries, new comprehensions, and of course, new casualties of her own exploding urges to nourish herself. The Addiction's soundtrack, composed almost exclusively of vibrant but gruesomely violent rap, provides another apt complement to the film's air of menace. The pulsing basslines from groups like Cypress Hill and ONYX are instantly hypnotic, demanding that we listen, though, in an outrageous parallel to the philosophical texts Kathleen investigates, the words and messages folded into these entrancing songs grow consistently bleaker the more attention one pays.

The strong, innovative use of light and sound keeps The Addiction fresh and compelling, as does the typically fascinating performance from Lili Taylor, and Ferrara wisely keeps the film short, so its most powerful effects do not have time to wear off or become routine. Like Ferrara's other films, such as 1993's notorious Bad Lieutenant, this picture also embraces provocation as a means of holding our attention. The film's handling of race in conjunction with its themes of history and of violence commands attention. Taylor's grad-school professors and colleagues, ceaselessly immersing themselves in descriptions and even visual footage of the Nazi Holocaust and other mass executions, are generally (though not exclusively) a white, seemingly middle-to-upper-class cohort who theorize violence and grapple with problems of moral disintegration from a comforting intellectual distance. Meanwhile, Ferrara's camera also probes through the crowds of black youth on city corners, shopping in convenience marts and proclaiming sexual availability to passersby on the street. The Addiction suggests that, while the students contemplate the past, the urban population inhabits only a risky and dangerous present; the former group lives through their minds, while the latter live through and with their bodies. Taylor, after her transformation, passes back and forth between these communities, a sort of unifying figure—but then, what does it mean that she is also a monster, a murderer?

Questions such as these make The Addiction a troubling experience, but in the positive sense of challenge and interrogation. Even when the film goes overboard on philosophy or on scare-tactics, as in a climactic scene of predation in Taylor's apartment, the words and images are rendered with enough potency that one permits Ferrara his excesses. What I could not indulge was the ham-handed finale, which, I am sad to report, abandons all of the film's daring ambitions for a pat ending that dodges any conclusion to its difficult, sometimes painful ideas. In fact, one is hard-pressed enough to figure out what happens at the film's end, much less what the events could possibly mean. Merely shaving off the last hundred seconds would have served the film immeasurably. Fortunately, though, Ferrara's film both impresses and terrifies sufficiently for most of its duration that one can ignore, if not quite forgive, the way it trickles to a close. The Addiction, as befits its title, had me absolutely hooked and, in the days since I watched the film, has proven admirably difficult to shake off. B


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