Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy dramatizes the tempestuous, ultimately lethal 18-month relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Cloe Webb). The period of time covered in the film, roughly 1977 to 1978, coincides with the elevation of punk—as both a musical form and a way of life—in the U.K., and Cox’s film is most successful in relating the anger, nihilism, anarchic humor, and chaos that went with it. Sid and Nancy is a chronicle of punk’s gutter-snipe rhetoric (to borrow an excellent turn of phrase from cultural scholar Dick Hebdige), menacing visual style, raging sense of performance, and loathing of anything that smacked of normality or conformity.
The film itself, at its best, rants and rages and embodies the punk aesthetic while also transcending it in moments of lyrical visual beauty (the most memorable instance is a gorgeous slow-motion shot of Sid and Nancy kissing against a dumpster while garbage rains down from above). As a portrait of crazed, intense romance—l’amour fou, as the French would say—the film is decidedly less successful because its protagonists are ultimately impenetrable. The film is quite disturbing in its relentless downward trajectory, as Sid and Nancy devolve from a pinnacle of momentary stardom to a long, drawn-out, grungy nonexistence of heroin addiction and isolation. At the same time, though, Cox seems to want us to see them as romantic antiheroes—Bonnie and Clyde in fishnets, leather, and dog collars wielding drugs and musical instruments instead of machine guns—and they’re just not that interesting.
After a prologue in which we see Sid being arrested at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City for Nancy’s murder in October 1978, the film flashes back to early 1977 when Sid and Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) first meet Nancy, an American groupie who has made her way to London and is staying with Phoebe (Debby Bishop), a dominatrix. Although Sid at first rejects Nancy’s intentions (which are primarily sexual), he eventually finds himself drawn to her, and they begin a torrid, twisted relationship that is based on a kind of mutual self-destruction (the fact that they take a death vow together comes as no surprise). Sid, as played by Oldman, is something of a goof—a scrawny, maladjusted kid with spiky hair, hollow cheeks, and wild eyes who tries on the pretense of punk anger and nihilism and finds it a good fit, while Nancy, despite being not yet 20 years old, is something altogether more intentional and dangerous.
The screenplay by Cox and Abbe Wool does not shy away from the long-standing narrative that Nancy was a corrupting influence on Sid, drawing him away from the Sex Pistols during their brief stint at the top of the trans-Atlantic pop culture heap and turning him inward, where there was nothing but the two of them. The second half of the film, which comes after the Sex Pistols’ collapse midway through a disastrous American tour, takes place largely inside the squalid room Sid and Nancy shared at the Hotel Chelsea, where they drift in and out of heroin-induced hazes, becoming cognizant just long enough to either stumble down to the methadone clinic or to score more smack in a grimy back alley. They interactions veer wildly from the pathetically co-dependent to the violently angry, with Nancy often playing the role of instigator while Sid lashes out defensively. One could argue that Sid was destined to destroy himself (this is someone, after all, who expressed himself by smashing his forehead against a brick wall and carving Nancy’s name in his chest with a razor blade), although one could also argue that his demise was greatly hastened by Nancy, who introduced him to heroin and flamed his already self-destructive tendencies in the name of some kind of twisted romantic ideal.
There is genuine power in the performances by Oldman and Webb, who leave everything on the screen, but it is hard to generate much interest in their characters’ claustrophobic tailspin, especially since there is no suspense as to where it will end. (Well, that’s not entirely true since there is, to this day, continued controversy over Nancy’s death, with some arguing that someone else stabbed her in the stomach and let Sid be the fall guy. Cox and Wool go with the idea that Sid did, indeed, stab her, but it was largely accidental and thus a tragic culmination of their love-hate relationship. It could literally only end in bloodshed.) Many of the scenes in the second half of the film are literally difficult to watch because they convey so nakedly the wretched depths to which they had sunk, although Cox, the cult auteur behind Repo Man (1984), finds plenty of space to insert black comedy, whether it be a disastrous visit by Sid and Nancy to her very upstanding middle-class family, or a scene in which they accidentally set their hotel room on fire and are so drugged out of their minds that they just sit and watch it burn.
Cox takes the docudrama approach and hits on most of high (that is to say, low) points of Sid’s brief tenure as bassist for the Sex Pistols, including their notorious television interview with Bill Grundy, the chaotic recording of their one album Never Mind the Bollocks, and their even more chaotic U.S. tour. The film’s accumulation of physical details is consistently impressive, and Cox makes us feel the squalor of dank hotel rooms, the clutter of back alleys, and the perpetually overcast skies that makes the world seem so dismal that only the roar of punk can crack the tedium. Yet, the film is ultimately too hollow at its core because its characters are hollow, driving incessantly toward the end to which we know they are destined without ever slowing down or veering toward the curb. There is some nobility in the film’s relentlessness and single-minded focus, but not enough to redeem its lack of having anything much to say beyond what we get on the surface.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © MGM / The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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