There’s a whole lot of Sid and Nancy that’s impossibly dark and depressing. The Sex Pistols bassist and his volatile girlfriend were not ones to live slow and boring, preferring hard drugs and long nights and loud music. The love was intense and it was brief, flaring exponentially like one of those dying superstars, forced to quit after burning too bright for too many hours. The end isn’t pretty, and it’s the only end that such a relationship could come to.
Alex Cox made Sid and Nancy almost immediately after his debut feature Repo Man, but there’s a clear jump in maturity from one film to the next. Sure, actors like Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb help; Webb is unfathomably childish, as the character should be, and Oldman is just amazing as the pencil-thin Sid Vicious. But Cox is the real star here, as he manages to make an extremely affecting portrait of two lovers out of the all-too-recent shards of their former lives.
The Sex Pistols disbanded after their US tour, leaving Sid and Nancy to fend for themselves and scrape by on Sid’s solo act. They are both extremely unhealthy, both in body and in mind, and the drugs they love begin to take hold of their affairs more and more. They stay in their room more and more, until the final scenes which are set entirely in the bedroom. Neither Sid nor Nancy seem able to leave that room, and it’s Nancy who never does. Her death – though surrounded by mystery in the actual news media – is an accident at the hands of strung-out Sid himself. Nancy’s life in the film up until this point is pathetic and difficult to watch, but her pitiful fate is quite nearly sickening.
Somehow, though, despite long stretches of despair and horrific moments like the death of Nancy, Sid and Nancy captures something else that the punk movement managed to as well. The Sex Pistols and their fans are hard-living, hard-drinking, leather-jacketed hoodlums who swear at their grandmothers and kick people in the face at their shows with boots on – but they have a good-natured humor about them at times, rolling around in the rain and parading down the street in their underwear. Alex Cox nails this humor, and amidst the deep dark of the majority of the film an important light peeks through again and again.
A smash cut of Sid walking into one pub and suddenly staggering out of another is a great example, as it gives a snapshot of his life in a half-second switch of the camera. Another sequence later shows Sid onstage singing to a crowd of well-dressed elderly white people who seem to love the metal-clad Sid Vicious – until he pulls out a pistol and murders everyone in the auditorium. Is this a dream? Is this some kind of vision Sid has of himself or of his place in society, a la Bronson or Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll? Whatever it is, it’s gleeful and jarring alongside the bedridden scenes that make up most of Sid and Nancy.
The best of these moments both come in New York City. The first is when Sid and Nancy happen across a kid being bullied and Sid tells the bullies off. “Who the hell do you think you are?” they sneer. “Sid Vicious,” Sid says, and the kids immediately scatter as if the name belonged to a Clint Eastwood drifter of the Old West. The second comes at the very end, when Sid walks past three kids dancing to hip hop. They tell him to dance with them, he says he ain’t gonna dance around with no kids – but he does. Nancy is passed but he hasn’t forgotten her, as if he ever could, and somehow all of this boils down to Sid Vicious dancing with a few kids in the middle of nowhere. This is the spirit that Cox injects into the bleakness of Sid and Nancy, and it’s what makes the film so effective in the end.