Union Square

Stephen J. Szklarski's rough and raw video documentary strips all the perceived poetry from heroin abuse in and around New York City's Union Square area, a hardscrabble life immortalized by Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground's classic junkie ode, "Run Run Run." Dispelling any illusion of heroin chic, Szklarski focuses on seven homeless junkies and one dope-addicted...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Stephen J. Szklarski's rough and raw video documentary strips all the perceived poetry from heroin abuse in and around New York City's Union Square area, a hardscrabble life immortalized by Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground's classic junkie ode, "Run Run Run." Dispelling any illusion of heroin chic, Szklarski focuses on seven homeless junkies and one dope-addicted dealer and reveals a desperate, deeply depressing existence that revolves solely around chasing down the next bag of smack. But however accurate Szklarski's depiction, slow-motion suicide makes for dull and dreary viewing, and his subjects are hardly the colorful characters Reed sang about in 1967. Redheaded Cheyenne went from weekend dabbler to full-time user before losing her car, her job, her apartment and, finally, the right to see her daughter. Cheyenne and her cranky boyfriend, Mike, now panhandle in and around the city to keep them both in dope for the day, and spend the nights sleeping amid all their possessions by a subway entrance. After revealing the slowly healing abscess on his shoulder, Rob demonstrates the art of skin popping — injecting the drug under the skin rather than into a vein — in a public bathroom. Mark is the son of an ex-user, and Danny sells his friends' books and CDs when they run out of money to give him. James compares life on the streets to the time he spent in lockup on Rikers Island, while a pierced and shaved California-born punk who goes by "Stealth" puts some of the money he makes on the streets towards augmenting his array of tattoos. All are down-and-out abusers who've gradually lost everything but their habits, and all of them spend their days — and all too often, their nights — in Union Square, a bustling patch of park that stretches three blocks, from 14th to 17th Streets. Szklarski divides his film into chapters according to vague subjects — "Family," "Friendship," "Detox" — but the rambling talk returns with inexorable monotony to the one thing his subjects have in common: heroin. Ironically, the film's success in capturing the tone and tenor of junkie life is what ultimately makes it tedious. Like its seven subjects, it can't see past the immediate demands of addiction, and the film becomes a seemingly endless string of scenes depicting shooting up, nodding out and waiting around for the next fix.

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