From Batman to Antman, David Dastmalchian has cut a distinctive figure as an actor. But in Animals, which he wrote, he reveals the homeless heroin addict he was before the acting career took off.

They say to write what you know, and with Animals, former heroin addict David Dastmalchian has done just that. Although now Dastmalchian is an actor best-known for his role as Joker’s henchman, Thomas Schiff, in The Dark Knight, 15 years agoDastmalchian was not acting in feature films. He was a homeless heroin addict living in his car—and that’s the experience he drew on when writing Animals. 

The film, written by Dastmalchian and directed by Collin Schiffli, opens with a calming image of whales twisting and turning gracefully in the water. That moment of serenity shifts to screaming sirens in the background as a young couple struggles into the emergency room. The woman seems hurt.

She’s not. She’s scamming the doctor for pills. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she’s not hurt physically—clearly she’s hurting in other ways. As we soon discover, she and her boyfriend are living out of a car, nursing their growing heroin habits.

Set in Chicago, the film follows the young couple, Bobbie (Kim Shaw) and Jude (Dastmalchian) as they come up with increasingly creative means of getting money to score. Their typical day includes all the activities one might expect of a junkie couple: stealing CDs, copping in sketchy spots, shooting up in public bathrooms, making trips to the hospital using fake names and social security numbers, running scams, and pawning stolen goods. It is an unflinchingly honest portrait of life as an addict, and it’s written with a realism that can only come from first-hand experience.

In what seems to be an interesting homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, at the end of the first night the couple is sitting in their car watching people in an apartment complex. They peer up into the windows, watching people live their regular, non-addicted lives. They laugh at a man practicing karate and marvel at an old couple dancing. Eating pizza together as they people-watch, for a minute their lives seem normal.

Like Hitchcock, Schiffli has a gift for creating suspense. Partly because the film inhabits a world that is inherently suspenseful—when you’re watching two heroin addicts (on the big screen or in real life), you’re always watching with baited breath, knowing that something bad will happen. With addiction, it’s always a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, not all drug movies cultivate suspense in the way that Animals does. As the viewer quietly wonders what tragedy will bring the film to an end, the schemes and scams that go down in the meantime offer a suspense of their own. The viewer asks, “How’s this one going to work?” and, “Is this going to be the time they get caught?”

Because Animals focuses on what the couple’s lives have become, it doesn’t spend a lot of time on how they got there. At one point, though, Jude wonders aloud about how they’ve ended up where they are—homeless drug addicts—despite the privilege they were born with. He tells Bobbie, “You know we couldn’t have been born in more ideal circumstances. We’re white American.” He continues, commenting that they are college-educated and middle class, then concludes, “So what happened, sugartoes?”

“I don’t know, babe,” she replies. “Why does a bird keep flying in the same window?”

It’s not a question that the film seeks to answer—but it doesn’t necessarily need to try. For a film to have impact, it doesn’t have to answer questions; just asking them is sometimes enough.

In a letter on the film’s website, Dastmalchian writes, “It is our goal for this film to spark conversations across the country with the hopes of positively influencing those immersed in the struggle—either with their own addiction or that of a friend or family member.” As a former drug user, I must confess to being completely baffled by this. Now that I am clean, seeing a film like this reinforces all the reasons I am glad not to be caught up in that world. But when I was using? This would not have made a bit of difference. I didn’t need to see the horrors of addiction on the big screen—I was living it every day, and for nine years that still wasn’t enough for me to get sober.

But maybe that’s just me. As REEL Recovery Film Festival founder Leonard Lee Buschel told me recently, “Addiction is like a snowflake.” That is, everyone’s addiction is different, everyone runs a slightly different course. Hopefully, there are struggling addicts out there who will see this and feel it push them in the right direction.

As a former addict, I have mixed feelings about the film’s title and ongoing animal motif. Is the implication that addicts are animals? Although I certainly couldn’t dispute it if someone told me I “lived like an animal” when I was using, I don’t think it’s productive or helpful to encourage viewing addicts as less-than-human. But is that what the filmmakers are saying? Maybe not; there’s another way to read that comparison.

Animals are spread throughout the film, starting with the opening images. There are shots of Bobbie and Jude watching Animal Planet, a plastic gorilla on the couple’s dashboard, a scene where Jude very deliberately killing a fly, and jokes about whether sharks live in Lake Michigan. However, the most consistent animal appearance is the recurring image of animals in the zoo. Bobbie and Jude spend a lot of time parked next to the zoo, so they spend a lot of time staring at animals in cages. In light of that, another way of reading the film’s title would be as a commentary on the cage-like nature of addiction.

Overall, it’s a heartbreaking and carefully wrought story. Be forewarned: there are numerous scenes of needles and shooting up, so for some viewers this film could definitely be a trigger. For me, though, it was a gritty and real reminder of all the reasons I’m grateful to say that I’m not a junkie anymore.

This story was originally published on The Fix.

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