It takes a while for anyone in Sid & Nancy to be likable. Even after they’re likable, it’s not like they’re particularly sympathetic. They’re tragic, sure, which is director Cox and cowriter Abbe Wool’s point, but entirely unpleasant to spend time with. The film has a bookend–Sid (Gary Oldman) being taken into police custody for murdering–at that point an unseen–Nancy (Chloe Webb). Oldman makes a visual impression, but kind of gets overshadowed by Cox’s New York cops. They’re all outlandish caricatures, including their costuming, which clashes with Oldman’s punk rock chic.
After the bookend, the action goes back in time to London, with Oldman hanging out with Andrew Schofield (as Sex Pistol’s vocalist Johnny Rotten–the film doesn’t offer any exposition to set up a viewer not at least somewhat familiar with The Sex Pistols) and meeting Webb. Webb’s an American punk rock enthusiast–and heroin addict–with a grating voice and an obnoxious demeanor. But she’s being obnoxious to Oldman and Schofield, so it’s hard to fault her. Oldman’s a moron, arguably–as the film starts–Schofield’s flunky. Meanwhile Schofield comes off as a pretentious poser (needless to say no one thought much of Sid & Nancy’s historical accuracy, not its surviving subjects or even the filmmakers).
But Oldman soon becomes sympathetic to Webb and ends up, after some misadventures, getting high with her. From then on, they’re always together. Much to everyone else’s displeasure; well, not band manager David Hayman, who encourages Oldman’s behavior for the media attention. But much to Schofield’s. Sex is anti-punk so Schofield is anti-sex. Until they’re strung out too long, Webb and Oldman like the sex.
Most of the first half of Sid & Nancy is Oldman and Webb getting high, trying to find money for getting high, getting mad about not finding money to get high (Hayman apparently has Oldman on an allowance without a heroin allotment), Oldman messing up band obligations, Webb pissing off Schofield and others with her demands (which become Oldman’s demands, only he’s way too high most of the time to put much force behind them), Webb and Oldman fighting (usually over drugs, sometimes over the band). The dramatic result comes from the actors in scene more than anything in the script. The intensity, which sometimes means Oldman being almost completely inert, or Webb hitting a new level of annoying, propels the film. As a director, Cox oscillates between indifference and dislike for his protagonists; friction keeps the film in motion.
Until the Sex Pistols go on their U.S. tour–leaving Webb in London–and Cox gets a jumpstart, starting with the first shot of the U.S. tour. He finally finds something cinematic to chew on. The U.S. tour itself, the visual juxtaposing of English punk and cowboy hat wearing Americans, Oldman freaking out on payphone in the middle of Americana… it all becomes visual foreshadowing of the second half. The band breaks up on tour; Oldman and Webb head to Paris for a bit, back to London for a bit, then end up in New York. She becomes his manager. They visit her family. Sid & Nancy gets these moments of absurd hilarity, a pressure release as it tracks its protagonists’ descent. Cox doesn’t glamorize their heroin dependency (he does very little exploring it). As it becomes more and more clear Oldman and Webb can’t survive–they quite clearly can’t take care of themselves–Cox focuses in tighter on the two characters and their relationship. It’s always in a nightmarish setting, but often dreamy.
Oldman’s performance gets better and better as the film progresses. At the start, thanks to the narrative, Schofield overshadows him, then Webb overshadows him. After the tour sequence, when Oldman appears to get some agency, he’s always the narrative’s driving force. If not in scene, than in performance. Even when it’s Webb’s scene, like when they visit her grandparents and extended family and are way too punk rock for the late seventies suburbs. Webb gets to be flashy in those scenes, but they’re all built around Oldman’s eventual contribution.
The second half descent also has the film’s most beautifully edited and realized cinematic sequences, always set to music, sometimes (apparently) diegetic music, sometimes not. Roger Deakins’s photography is always phenomenal, but it’s often phenomenal in its dreariness. In the grand cinema sequences, Deakins never changes the film’s visual tone, he, Cox, and editor David Martin just find a way to hold the moment long enough the intensity burns through the dreary. But not visually, obviously. Cox and Martin are aware, the whole time, how to control the mood (and Deakins’s photography’s affect on it) through length of scene, length of shot. They just don’t start doing much with that knowledge until the second half.
And once Sid & Nancy opens itself ot cinematic splendor, there’s always a subtle impatience until the next sequence. The first half is so light on them (and so frequently narratively unpleasant), it causes some de facto resentment. Cox could’ve done more with the film and didn’t.
Oldman’s great, Webb’s (annoying as all hell and) great, Schofield’s great (regardless of historical accuracy). None of the supporting performances are bad and there’s a large supporting cast, but they just don’t have much to do. Or they don’t have much to do for long. Sometimes getting out faster is better. Sy Richardson, for instance, has a great scene as Oldman and Webb’s methadone caseworker. But it’s a scene. Meanwhile, Hayman’s around so much without any character development, he suffers. Ditto Xander Berkeley (as Oldman and Webb’s New York drug dealer) and Courtney Love. The more scenes they have, the more it matters they’re caricatures.
Transfixing lead performances, excellent direction, great cinematography, sublime music (original score and soundtrack)… Sid & Nancy is a technical marvel. It just should’ve been more of one, which matters since Cox isn’t invested in the narrative.
Directed by Alex Cox; written by Cox and Abbe Wool; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Dan Wool; production designers, Lynda Burbank, J. Rae Fox, and Andrew McAlpine; produced by Eric Fellner; released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company.
Starring Gary Oldman (Sid), Chloe Webb (Nancy), Andrew Schofield (John), David Hayman (Malcolm), Anne Lambton (Linda), Perry Benson (Paul), Tony London (Steve), Debby Bishop (Phoebe), Courtney Love (Gretchen), Xander Berkeley (Bowery Snax), and Sy Richardson (Methadone Caseworker).