As a Hollywood actor, cannabis has – in this century – been typecast as an oafish, childish, absent-minded jester. It’s there to make idiocy seem adorable, to posture the absence of ambition as the equivalent of success, and to bestow an illusion of luxury upon poverty. As a result, cannabis’s roles in movies whose characters aren’t fulfilling and perpetuating stoner and reefer stereotypes don’t tend to stick with viewers. But its use can be substantive, when done thoughtfully. Two examples of this are “American Beauty” (1999) and “Platoon” (1986). In both movies, characters smoke weed for something other than delirious laughter and brazen Frito-Lay product placement. And the incorporation of cannabis consumption isn’t incidental; it’s functional.
*** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! ***
In this movie, cannabis does provide fuel for a couple of obligatory smoke-filled giggling scenes, but it also factors heavily into plot and character development. High school student Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) is a prosperous pot dealer with a penchant for cinematography. After taking an interest in and filming Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), his classmate and next-door neighbor, he creates an opportunity to get to know Jane’s dad, Lester (Kevin Spacey). Lester is with his wife at a cocktail party, absolutely miserable and hating his life, when one of the waiters – Ricky – recognizes him and introduces himself as Lester’s new neighbor. After exchanging pleasantries, Ricky lingers awkwardly, watching Lester. Then, he takes a leap of faith and asks, “Do you party?” A moment later, he clarifies: “Do you get high?” Lester grins and his eyes brighten as he answers silently in the affirmative. And this single act leads to Lester’s rebirth.
For Lester, marijuana embodies self-transformation. The first night he smokes it with Ricky at that party (something he later hints at not having done since 1973), he is shedding the morose person he’s become as an adult. Lester witnesses Ricky’s quitting his job as a waiter, and he later overhears his daughter’s best friend – whom Lester has a crush on – say that she’d sleep with Lester if he were more fit. That very night, motivated by defiance and lechery, Lester goes from being resigned to terminal melancholy to being inspired to improve himself and his life.
Cannabis appears in each scene marking another milestone for Lester in his quest for a better life. He’s smoking a joint while he’s taking up weightlifting again, which coincides with his standing up to his uptight, demeaning wife as he never has before. And he’s smoking a joint while he’s driving home from work after quitting his job and extorting a full year’s pay with benefits out of the company. That joint leads to his landing a new job at the place he stops at to appease his cannabis-induced appetite, a fast food restaurant. And at the end of the film, cannabis is what triggers the movie’s climax and Lester’s demise after a pot deal with Ricky goes wrong.
Like a uniform donned by a soldier in combat, cannabis is a de facto indictor of which side someone is on in this movie. The platoon referenced in the title is composed of U.S. soldiers fighting the Viet Cong in Vietnam, and these soldiers are socially divided into two squads, each loyal to a different sergeant. Those loyal to Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) condescendingly abstain from cannabis but drink heavily, and those loyal to Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) get high together.
The cultural aura exuded by each sergeant’s philosophy attracts likeminded followers. Elias is a compassionate leader, and he cares sincerely for not only his brothers in arms but also Vietnamese civilians. Within his squad, cannabis transcends barriers present in the civilian world, such as race and socioeconomic status. The brotherhood borne of sharing joints and improvised bongs, in addition to fighting and dying at one another’s sides, is sewn into the souls of these men. By contrast, Barnes is a ruthless and resilient war-hardened leader. He puts the mission ahead of anyone’s life, and he doesn’t regard the Vietnamese as human beings. The soldiers who are more passionate about taking lives and asserting superiority hang on his every word.
When lead character and narrator Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arrives in Vietnam, he’s never tried marijuana before. After making a good impression on King (Keith David), one of Elias’ followers, he’s invited to meet “the heads.” He’s taken to a den at base camp where Elias’ squad members (the heads) are smoking, drinking and singing along while listening to Motown hits. Elias approaches Chris right after Chris puffs on a pipe that’s passed to him, and asks, “First time?” Chris answers, “Yeah,” catching his breath. When Elias asks whether Chris feels good, Chris says he does and adds that the pain in his neck (from being shot) isn’t there anymore. Elias’ response to that could be the squad’s motto: “Feeling good’s good enough.”
Both “American Beauty” and “Platoon” won Oscars (2000 and 1987, respectively) for Best Picture and Best Director. And for both movies, the directors – Sam Mendes for “American Beauty,” and Oliver Stone for “Platoon” – saw the potential of using cannabis as a cinematic device and ran with it. Mendes used cannabis to punctuate Lester’s awakening. As something that lends itself naturally to expanding the mind, marijuana signaled to viewers that Lester was, in each smoking scene, changing the way he saw things. And Stone used cannabis as a tangible aspect of the culture clash between the hippies (Team Elias) and the cutthroats (Team Barnes). Barnes’ contempt for Elias is shown to be an extension of his disdainful attitude toward pot smokers in general. This explains – and gives credibility to – his otherwise implausibly extreme behavior later in the movie. So, in both instances, cannabis was used brilliantly by the directors as a storytelling tool. That goes to show you, cannabis doesn’t always have to be a gimmick or an easy punchline.