Why this film?: Because Sid Vicious seemed about as far from Winston Churchill as you could get, and the prospects of seeing Gary Oldman this early in his career and Chloe Webb’s critics prize winning performance were two equally tantalizing points of interests.
The film: When Sid & Nancy opens, Sid Vicious is staring off somewhere into the abyss. He is not staring at the offscreen police officer asking him about the identity of the dead woman in his bathroom, her corpse distant in the far right corner of the screen. The police do not seem to know that the woman is Nancy Spungen, Sid’s girlfriend of over a year, though they aren’t necessarily wrong when they ask if she’s a groupie, or a drug dealer, or a prostitute. Sid isn’t staring at her either, though I certainly was. He only springs to life when he’s hauled out of his hotel room, past a couple of despondent friends who focus on Nancy’s body bag, through a swarm of reports, and into a police car by a pair of cops. The prologue ends with Sid in an interrogation room being stared down by five officers, all asking him about how he met this woman, where it all started, and what happened that caused him to stab her to death.
It’s an unusual choice, not just in the moment but as the film progresses. Made eight years after Sid killed Nancy and seven years after Sid died of an accidental heroin overdose, this is the only instance where the film “introduces” Sid and Nancy to us, setting the table for an audience walking in without knowing these were real people instead of squatting in their world and presuming that viewers know them and what they’re about. Using such a famously noir device also creates an impression of tone and story that the film completely avoids. Director Alex Cox earns a lot of goodwill by filming this story primarily in a plainly observational key, though he’ll experiment with incorporating semi-surreal flourishes within that style. Despite the prescriptive opening, nothing about the rest of the film leans on that device as an excuse to amp the performances into melodrama or romantic tragedy or bleak comedy at these outsiders who will be pushed out of the few circles they expected to be part of. This similarly frees Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb from having to keep their characters bound to any predictable archetypes or dynamics, layering their relationship with love and devotion and repulsion and a growing awareness that the two are dragging each other into a wreck they may already be trapped in. No one is the victim or the abuser, the one putting up with someone that doesn’t deserve them, the one who is giving more into their partnership than the other is.
And yet, if Sid & Nancy deserves credit for not being overly prescriptive towards a knotty, unpredictable, complicated self-destructive relationship that plays as all of those things when you watch it, I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to get out of this story. It’s one thing to shoot, edit, script, and direct most of this story with the immediacy and observant eye of someone who might be sitting in the bar with the Sex Pistols, but this style frequently feels shapeless, meandering, and underthought as the film progresses. Supporting characters feel vaguely defined, and if Oldman and Webb commit fully to two abrasive and volatile personalities, they can still be accused of playing scenes with too little variation across the film, Oldman often too dull with Sid’s stupors and Webb too high with Nancy’s outbursts. It takes until about two thirds of the way through, when Sid and Nancy are at their absolute lowest, for the film’s images to take any kind of risks or attempt to dig into the headspace of two zonked out drug addict alcoholics, and as much as those efforts pay off it’s hard not to wish that they hadn’t been attempted earlier. At its best, Sid & Nancy is still haunted by missed opportunities and superior films that tackled similar subjects and ideas, and at its worst you wonder how it could have stumbled on such seemingly avoidable obstacles. It’s an oddly appropriate and interesting kind of failure considering its characters, but one that makes the film feel incredibly hollow at its core without much prodding.
What’s oddest about Sid & Nancy is how surprisingly little the film has to offer on a most basic thematic level. I’m not saying it needed a capital-L Lesson to power itself, but I’m genuinely not sure what I’m supposed to take away from this. Savage Grace was able to be perverse, sad, empathetic, and deeply uncomfortable without acting as if it wasn’t telling a small, outlandish story. That film is just as comfortable with old money delusions of grandeur and dangerous sexual impulses as Sid & Nancy is with the unwieldy drug use and violence in the punk scene that Sid Vicious basically personified, but unlike Savage Grace, there’s no indication in the environment as to why or how his behavior is accepted right up to the point where it isn’t. This is where the film’s basically atonal style most hinders it, again in comparison to Savage Grace, with its ability to throw a lot of strange provocations at its audience and its characters while almost making a point of not guiding our responses or explaining how anyone else feels about what we’re seeing. Sid & Nancy creates a lot of discomforting scenes, like watching Sid carve words into his own chest for an audience of transfixed young girls in a hotel room, or watching him pretend to have taken heroin to impress Nancy when she’s actually introducing him to it, or Nancy’s own mad sprint to a bus to get Sid smack, but Cox basically presents these images to the audience rather than shaping them in any way. Nothing about Sid & Nancy’s sound design, editing rhythms, or shooting style matches the world of punk musicians and fans that it has worked so hard to recreate through its sets and costumes. The studiousness of these replications, not just in aesthetics but in the performances, feels absent of any “take” on these events, making the observational style feel more like Cox is peering through the glass of an exhibit with no intention to really dig into the history he’s presenting us.
Oldman and Webb feel similarly misserved by this approach and under directed by Cox, proudly able to exit the film with more than a few bracing scenes under their belts even as it feels like the film should be able to boast two impressively dialed up but painfully sincere performances, if not two burning trainwrecks, rather than two sometimes interesting but often underwhelming interpretations of famously volatile people. Both actors feel slightly out of place, no matter how good they are, by the sheer fact of being 30 somethings playing ten years younger than they are. It’s a huge hamper to the film’s claims of naturalism, not to mention the loss of a kind of youthful arrogance, passion. and impetuousness that these characters would inarguably benefit from. If anything, Oldman’s Sid feels harder to get a grip on, in part because Cox feels like he never has any ideas about Sid Vicious as an artist. Scenes of him performing just play as extensions of his instability without adding any insight from this new, performative, public venue. How much is this an act, or him using the Brit punk scene as an avenue to get famous or get fucked up faster? Neither Cox nor Oldman seem interested in playing Sid as someone with any talent so much as an angry kid with the kind of energy that this time and place in music glorified, but that doesn’t explain why they never ask what would make Sid bother to be a musician in the first place. As impactful as Sid’s actions are, Oldman lacks the charisma, abrasiveness, and poignancy that Marion Cotillard is able to bring to La Vie en Rose, who’s not just dexterous with the film’s temporal conceits and Edith Piaf’s outlandish physicality but carves out a powerful emotional center that helps us understand her. Oldman gives a technically impressive performance, spontaneously believable and detailed with physicality and vocal work, but he plays Sid’s theatrical, shitty, self-destructive tendencies as the character rather than offering any insight as to why he chose this career, spent most of it inebriated, how much of his interest in Nancy was her love or how much she gave him besides her devotion. His utter inability to make Sid’s immobile, loling stupors remotely interesting only highlights how little to make this character compelling, and how hollow the performance ultimately is.
Daniel Day-Lewis was apparently the first choice to play Sid Vicious, and though he’s just as age inappropriate for the role as Oldman, his casting is still an incredibly tantalizing prospect. I’m unfamiliar with which British actors would’ve be a better fit for Sid, but Chloe Webb’s work as Nancy Spungen so powerfully recalls the kinds of roles Jennifer Jason Leigh made her name on that it’s not just exciting but tangible to imagine what Leigh, then 24 and already an established actress, would have done in the role. A scene nearly a third into Sid & Nancy, where Nancy calls her mother from a phone booth asking for money to celebrate her marriage to Sid only to smash the phone through the glass wall in a tantrum after her mother denies her, is so eerily similar to Leigh wailing to her mom over the phone about not being able to access her credit card thirty years later in Good Time, that it became impossible not to imagine what Leigh’s take on Nancy would be.
But even if Webb is the easiest factor of Sid & Nancy I can replace in my head, she’s also the best, most consistent asset of anyone else on screen. Sometimes you wish for a little modulation when her outbursts feel too loud too many scenes in a row, but she’s skilled at finding multiple tones to play in a film that often withholds from a “take” on its scenes. In fact, the strength in her acting runs pretty parallel to the strength and ambition of the film, Webb always just above Cox and a good few rungs better than Oldman at his best. She’s engaging as a new face on the block who manages to catch Sid’s attention, ingratiating herself into his life better than even she was expecting. Webb does a better job playing the musician’s girlfriend than Oldman does playing the musician, and she and a poorly served supporting cast make us understand why any given member of the band feels the way they do about Nancy more evocatively than they do with Sid.
Webb is especially an asset in the back half of the film, once she and Sid have been kicked out of the Sex Pistols and left to fend on their own and Cox begins taking real risks in mood, framing, and subtle gradations of unreality. Compared to a cover of “My Way” halfway through the film that has a lot of impactful images but borders uncomfortably between music video fakeness and outright poor filmmaking without even connecting to the diegesis, the film finally clicks with the heady romance, drugged-out stupors, and utter bleakness that characterized the final leg of Sid and Nancy’s relationship. We see the two making out in an alleyway, looking for all the world like they’re posing in a music video as the soundtrack blares, the light whites out behind them, and trash falls in slow motion as someone unseen hurls it from their window, simultaneously puncturing the fantasy of this moment while adding an unexpected strangeness to it. Later, Sid and Nancy sit in bed, stoned out of their minds. Their hotel room is a complete wreck. Nancy snaps at Sid for something, throwing his lit cigarette into a pile of clothes and garbage on the floor. The two watch the fire grow with bored interest, doing nothing as the flames grow at a terrifying speed. They don’t even move when the fire department arrives, as if they knew the fire was about to start and tried to arrive before to stop them but just missed their window.
Even as Webb is gripping to watch, looking almost jaded as her room looks to swallow her and her paramour alive in fire, she isn’t a pronounced asset in the above scenes largely because they’re accomplishments of mise-en-scene. But these alterations in tone make the scenes of these two trying to crawl out of rock bottom even more bracing, like when she has to try and be Sid’s manager, selling the concept of a sober, talented, and presentable Sid Vicious so he can play at dive bars only to come home to him high out of his mind. She’s even better introducing him to her family, where Cox writes some interesting notes of culture clash comedy between the couple and Nancy’s straight-laced family and well-earned sympathy that he never really conjures in the couple’s direction before now. You see the jokes, hear the actors say the lines that are supposed to make us laugh, but though it’s never as vivid as it’s meant to be, Webb still scores the required notes of sympathy as Nancy’s parents and grandparents seem about as eager to dump her and Sid out of their house as soon as possible inside the agonizingly polite key of white middle-class acceptability.
The film hits its most unusual marks in the sequences before, during, and after Nancy is killed, squatting between grimy naturalism while spiking its rhythms in shooting and editing just enough that everything feels as though it’s happening in a bad dream. Nancy’s stabbing is the culmination of an argument that would have likely ended the relationship even if Sid didn’t kill her, though it’s left unclear if it was really murder. He guts her once, then the two go to bed and cuddle up together. Nancy gets out of a blood drenched bed, and Webb gives a shocking face as Nancy looks at herself in the mirror covered in blood, as though she died from realizing she had been stabbed rather than the wound and blood loss itself. It’s the single best scene in the film, but it’s the kind spontaneous, painful, and fascinating moment it should have been able to engender more often. Then Sid is released from jail, goes to a pizza joint in the middle of nowhere, and takes off with Nancy in a taxi cab.
It’s a weird ending, one that follows the dreamy mood but ultimately plays as much like a parody of the ending of Grease as casting so many 30-somethings to play leading characters ten years younger than them. It’s buoyed me against the film’s shakiest aspects, but these are slim if idiosyncratic rewards in a movie that often feels like it should be working a lot better than it is. I wish Cox had made even stranger flourishes and worked harder to push his material than he does, and I wish the actors felt even remotely served by what he was doing rather than seeming as though they put a lot of work into personalities that have no environment to manifest in and no one else but each other to play off. The fantasy of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Nancy Spungen may knock out the one part of the movie I like most, but I also can’t imagine Sid & Nancy feeling as watery as it does with her in it. It’s a misfire that goes out with a more interesting whimper than it starts with, but it’s still a bizarrely soft take on two fascinating, destructive, reckless young lovers, emblematic of an entire moment in music in pop culture, that were anything and everything except soft.