Louis Theroux is in the back of a car with two heroin addicts and a dealer, driving to a trap house. They pull up at a run-down brick bungalow in Huntington, West Virginia. “It looks like it needs an extreme makeover,” says Louis. His comment provides some comic relief before they go inside and the two women score drugs to inject. “I’ll be 26 in three months and I’ve used since I was 12,” says Betty. Sadly, her experience is probably less tragic than the other woman, Katillia, who’s only staying with her abusive boyfriend because he supplies her with smack.
With a name like Heroin Town, this documentary was always going to be grim and confronting. But it’s the access and intimacy between the host and the subjects that take it beyond an informative doco and turn it into a deeply compelling narrative. Intensely personal, it rouses a real sense of empathy for the people involved.
Love him or hate him, Louis has carved out a niche when it comes to talking to people about the things most others wouldn’t want to talk about. The documentary maker nails the awkwardly-posh-yet-endearingly-nerdy persona. As an Oxford-educated British guy who’s pushing 50, he still manages to keep his finger on the pulse of today’s biggest issues, from heroin addiction to Scientology and porn.
Louis gained notoriety in the late ’90s with his show Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, in which he interacted with a selection of society’s lesser-known sub-cultures, including white supremacists, porn stars and wrestlers. He explained that part of the show’s appeal was the juxtaposition between him, a middle-class British nerd, and them. “I don’t have to play up that stuff. I’m not a matinee idol disguised as a nerd,” said Louis, who insisted he was himself on camera.
By 2015, when My Scientology Movie came out, some began to question the authenticity of Louis’s on-screen persona. There were a few moments that felt as if he didn’t respect his chief interviewee, Marty Rathbun, who was a former member of the church. Louis’s deadpan expression and simple, repetitive line of questioning appeared a little callous and manipulative. You sensed that, rather than his usual curiosity, he was pushing Marty to his limits. Last October, Louis admitted to VICE that his on-screen personality is “at least a little bit” of an act. This isn’t really surprising; it’s just a different line to the one he was using back in the Weird Weekends days.
Whether Louis’s on-screen identity is authentic or fabricated, Heroin Town presents a sad and confronting reality. It’s an investigation into Huntington, where one in four of the city’s 49,000 inhabitants have an opiate addiction, and one in ten babies are born with a drug dependency. Louis goes deep, chatting to medical professionals, experts and addicts, even managing to be at the scene of an overdose. And unlike in My Scientology Movie, he doesn’t push any of his interviewees beyond their limits. Probably because the subject matter is confronting enough.