Requiem for a Dream (2000)

D: Darren Aronofsky
S: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto

Harrowing portrait of addiction from the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. A young man (Jared Leto) graduates from user to dealer with the help of his friend (Marlon Wayans) and beautiful, up-market girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Meanwhile his mother (Ellen Burstyn) gradually becomes hooked on diet pills when the promise of a TV appearance has her trying to improve her figure. Director Darren Aronofsky () tackles the evocation of these characters' downward spiral into hopeless addiction head-on. He revels in the graphic representation of emotional states, beginning with Burstyn's paranoia as she is besieged in her bedroom while Leto steals her TV. He moves quickly to euphoria following the obligatory rapidly edited shooting-up montage as Leto and Wayans trip out. There is even time for romantic bliss as Leto and Connelly celebrate their love with some breaking and entering and elevator sex. Aronofsky continues to push the film at a steady pace with lots of visual flourishes as the plotlines are established and set in motion.

It is nonetheless clear that he isn't all that interested in the plot per se despite a script co-written by Selby himself. The film is really more about representing states of mind and charting the long descent into terror, madness, and self-destruction which consumes these characters. It is a headlong rush through the cycle of satisfaction, elation, and desperation which envelops all of them, a junky-eye view which is hallucinogenic in more that one sense. It is arguable that their reality is never more stable than as they perceive it to be in the first place. The film suggests that everyone sees the world through aspiration, fantasy, and self-delusion anyway. Drugs turn out to be little more than a catalyst which reveals this as the characters retreat further and further from the 'dream' of 'normalcy'. For Aronofsky, this is a terrific jumping-off point from which to create a variety of nightmarish imagery which he uses to back the audience into as much of a corner as the characters themselves.

The first half often feels like so much MTV-style overkill. Is has terrific visual energy, supplied partly by Matthew Libatique's strikingly (deliberately) ugly cinematography and Jay Rabinowitz's clever editing. Aronofksy employs all of this in the service of some fairly bogstandard drug movie antics (Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting), with the small novelty of an initial application of the same techniques in portraying the life of an overweight, middle-aged, Jewish widow whose life consists of watching TV (also an addiction, it is implied) and hanging out with a group of similar women (the drug of social affirmation). Lively though it is, the film hasn't done anything especially interesting to this point and one begins to wonder if this isn't just virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, talent without discipline in the manner of Guy Ritchie (Snatch).

It is only in the latter half that this now familiar style begins to yield results on a deeper level. The pace increases only slightly and the film becomes more confrontational (both for the audience and in terms of what happens to the characters). As the characters begin to experience the ill effects of their addiction (ranging from the disgusting infection which afflicts Leto's arm to the cycle of self-degradation upon which Connelly embarks to raise cash) the viewer begins to realise that the director has been gradually building the psychological tension all the way. The film moves to its conclusion with a slow burn of imagistic excess which culminates in a sequence of interpolated scenes depicting the final fates of the four major characters. It moves relentlessly towards their respective nadirs with imagery which impacts like a sledgehammer and has a rhythm to match. As the action on screen becomes more and more unpleasant and the score becomes more insistent, the film doesn't need to alter tone or style, nor does the cinematography or editing vary much from what it began with except in subtle details. Aronofksy simply takes events to their logical conclusion in a style which he has established from the outset, and the cumulative effect of this montage is to drive home quite a powerful (and oppressive) sense of damnation which goes beyond the tropes of an anti-drug picture but is just as chastening.

Some mention must be made of the acting. Burstyn (The Exorcist, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) gives a brave performance as the doomed housewife whose descent initially seems to be the most innocent and blameless and is therefore all the more affecting. She makes a powerful impression on screen even amid the rapid-fire editing. She is particularly good in the film's only sustained dramatic scene when she meets with Leto after her diet pills have begun to kick in. Here she plays a range of panicky and euphoric emotions which convey a sense of pending disaster. Later on there are some difficult scenes of mental decay and physical duress which she plays with haunting authenticity and believability. She begins the film daring to look fat and old (a risk which was once said to be the reason John Wayne won an Oscar for True Grit), but plumbs ever darker depths of psychological depreciation right to the frightening (if inevitable) final scene. Connelly is also very good. Her performance stretches her as an actor by challenging her screen persona and downplaying her natural beauty. Her body is slowly eroded as the film goes on revealing an inner ugliness which stems from the character's intrinsic weaknesses which no amount of make-up can conceal. Connelly plays these darker scenes with conviction, and especially seems to enjoy exploring the hypocrisy of the 'moneyed girl seeking rough trade'. Leto is effective as a character with some good points and good intentions which make him (relatively) sympathetic. He is matched well with Wayans, who is not a racial caricature for once, although attempts to explore this character's family background with flashbacks are not effective.

Requiem for a Dream is a striking film. Yet in spite of this craft and artistry it is decontextualised and apolitical in a way which not everyone will appreciate. It is a psychological drama, not a social one, and though there are fleeting glimpses of place and time and there are potshots at American lifestyles, it reserves its firepower for the representation of the personal hells into which these characters fall as if it were their destiny. This is of course a directorial choice and Aronofsky has succeeded with what he set out to achieve, but it makes the film more interesting to an art-house audience who will appreciate its aesthetic reasoning than casual viewers who will have to respond to the story and the images on a more viscreal level. It may not have the staying power of a genuine classic, but there is much here to admire. It is notable for having a strong centre which comes not so much from the machinations of a screenwriter, but from a director using techniques which don't always lend themselves to moral depth. It is a disturbing film, and probably the most extreme seen on American screens for quite some time (outside of the exploitation market anyway). Again, none of this means it is a masterpiece, but it is worth seeing if you think you can take it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.