The Great Scenes: “Drug Deal Gone Horribly Wrong” from BOOGIE NIGHTS
Movie: Boogie Nights
Spoiler Level: High (but who cares?)
The Setup: In Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic portrait of the adult film industry underbelly, his main character finally hits rock bottom. Just as he comes to this realization where the only next step would be redemption, it might be too late. Porn superstar fallen from grace Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his buddies Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) and Todd Parker hope to score some quick cash by selling a fake bag of cocaine (actually baking soda) to crackhead druglord Rahad Jackson (the brilliantly whacked-out Alfred Molina). Thinking they’d be in and out in a hurry, Rahad, clad in a silk robe and underwear, wants them to stick around and party with his muscle-bound, pistol-packing bodyguard and mute Asian buddy inexplicably setting off firecrackers as his Awesome Mix Tape provides the musical backdrop for a maniacal evening.
Why It’s Great: Movies rarely affect me to a point where I want to leave the room during a given scene or scenario. In Rahad’s living room, I felt just as trapped as our three would-be drug dealer/con artists Dirk, Reed and Todd. Their anxiety was my own with each POP! of a firecracker, several of which you confuse with gunshots, especially when Rahan, high on crack-cocaine, pulls out a revolver to play a little Russian roulette. Every single person has been to that guy’s house they never wanted to go to in the first place where things get as weird/dangerous as you think they will. All you’re thinking is, “Let’s get the f*ck out of here now.”
Once Dirk has that feeling, as Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit hold the camera still on Wahlberg’s stone-faced inflection (a high mark for him as an actor, and for the film as the central character finally has the epiphany that awakes him from the murky depths to which he’s hopelessly traveled), he nearly escapes just in time. But his buddy Todd (Jane, in his best performance, not coming close to equaling it since) wants to stick around and press Rahad for more cash in a bedroom safe. Todd pulls a pistol before Rahad rushes into another room and his bodyguard opens fire on the misplaced trio. Then all hell breaks loose.
In fact, going back to the beginning of the scene, once Rahad’s front door opens, you get a sense that you’re entering hell along with these three troubled characters. It’s the worst place you could possibly end up. And regardless of the moral implications of what these people do professionally, their intentions were once relatively pure until cocaine entered the mix and corrupted their bodies and minds.
Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” will all taken on new meanings, as Anderson gets as much of the unexpected potential these seemingly innocent pop songs (not unlike his predecessor Martin Scorsese).
I don’t like to throw around too much hyperbole, but I often consider this to be my favorite movie scene of all time. For me, while what preceded this certainly soars on its own and exhibited Anderson as a filmmaker to watch (one with a clear idea of his own film grammar), the deal gone bad at Rahad’s catapulted him to an elite level of talent and storytelling. I will never, ever tire of this movie, thanks primarily to this scene.