“Requiem for a Dream”… What an inappropriately drowsy title for such an explosive film. It makes it sound like some black & white melodrama about queer French poets or something. “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, the title of another novel by Hubert Selby Jr (who wrote the screenplay adapted from his own book) is already more on track, but my suggestion would have been “Fucking Up”, because that’s just what the movie is about. It takes four relatively happy and balanced individuals and it watches almost clinically as each one fucks up his existence through addiction. There’s a lot of hell brought by smack, coke and pills, but it actually all seem to start with the oh so addictive fake dreams sold to people by television.
Meet Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), a widow living by herself in an apartment building older than herself in Brooklyn, by Coney Island. She’s terribly lonely, but she finds a little comfort in watching infomercials and game shows and fantasizing about being on TV herself, with millions of people watching her and, hopefully, liking her. Hence, when she’s contacted about being a possible contestant on her favorite quiz, she fills with joy. She can already see herself, in her golden shoes and the red dress she wore to her son’s graduation, the dress her late husband liked so much… If only she can fit in it. So that becomes her objective, losing enough weight to fit in the dress and look great on TV. She tries dieting, but that demands a lot of discipline, so she decides to go to her doctor and have him prescribe her diet pills. But if amphetamines make you lose your appetite and weight, they can also make you lose your mind, as they screw with your body chemistry and become so addictive that you start overusing them, and then it gets really ugly…
Meet Sara’s only son, Harold (Jared Leto). Bright, good looking. A bit of a slacker, but still a good kid. He does a little dope once in awhile, but hey, this is Brooklyn, who doesn’t, right ? He’s not a junkie or anything, he just likes to get high. So does his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), a beautiful, sweet young woman. They’re happy together, they party, they dream about the future… Marion likes to design dresses, and Harold wants to help her open her own boutique. With his best pal Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans), a streetwise African-American with connections, he schemes a perfect plan to make a big score. All they have to do is buy a big stash of smack, cut it to double their stock and sell it with profit. It’s that simple… or is it? Drug dealing is not the safest of occupations, and when you’re using a bit too much of your shit yourself, you’re well on your way to fucking up…
“Requiem for a Dream” is as powerful and intense as filmmaking gets. It was directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose only previous feature film was the critical hit “Pi” (I have yet to see it). Now they’re talking about handing him the Batman franchise, and if they do, man are we in for a wild ride! Judging by “Requiem”, Aronofsky really knows his craft. He’s one of those filmmakers who’s obviously passionate about every element, and therefore he works hard to make everything as good as possible. The lighting, the editing, the cinematography, the music, the acting… Everything is top notch. Yet it’s not all flash ; everything serves the dramatic progression of the story. The film is divided in three parts. Summer, when everything seems possible, every dream attainable. Fall, when they get hit by the dull reality of things, and must adjust to it or sink deeper. And finally Winter, when it’s too late to get out, hang on, it’s about to really get horrible. This structure mirrors the way it is with hard drugs. At first it’s fun, and seemingly harmless. Then it’s not all that fun anymore, it becomes a routine of abuse. And if you keep at it, you get to a point where it’s your only reason to live, if you can call that wretched existence of yours a life anymore. To communicate the distorted perception of his addicted characters, Aronofsky uses every trick in the post-MTV handbook, from split screen to sped up images, manic editing, point-of-view shots, slow motion and various other special effects. He also uses a series of close-ups shots in leitmotiv (a rolled up dollar bill, a syringe filling up, pills popped out, dilating pupils…), showing them over and over through the film to show how the people in the movie can’t help doing the same gestures again and again. That’s addiction, baby.
Besides being sustainedly visually dazzling, the film also sounds awesome. Aronofsky makes great use of surround sound technology, warping us in sound effects to make the experience even more intense. Add to that the best film score I’ve heard all year, and your ears are in for a treat. What I love is that not only is Clint Mansell’s score effective, laying down the notes and chords to underline the emotional core of key moments, heightening the drama through the film, but it’s also completely contemporary. Most movies still sound like they were made in 1940, but not this one. Scratching, sampling, beat-breaking, Mansell knows it and he uses it, to great effect. The rhythmic pounding provided by techno music really fits with the overall feel of the picture, which is increasingly jumpy and frenetic itself. Mansell also mixes in some traditional string quartet arrangements, and it all makes for an innovative, moving musical backdrop for what we see on screen.
So technically, the movie rules hell and earth, but if the performances weren’t up to it, the movie could have fell flat on its aesthetically stimulating face. No worry here, “Requiem for a Dream” features some of the best acting I’ve seen all year. And as far as Ellen Burstyn’s part goes, I’d stretch it to ever. She really went all out for this role, and it’s brutal to watch. You really see her deteriorate before your eyes. Going from Mommie Dearest to that wacked out old hag raving in the subway. Burstyn gets thin, then thinner, her hair dye gets uglier and uglier, her make-up messier. She herself grows more confused and confusing, always more obsessed with her stupid game show and her stupid red dress… And how lonely she is, poor old widow, and she’s only making it worse by popping uppers all day, she’s becoming even more alienated. Oh, I tell you, it gets hard to even watch her… But at the same time, you can’t look away. If Burstyn doesn’t get a Best Actress Oscar, the Academy is definitively out of it.
The other performances in the film don’t approach such heights of brilliance, but the rest of the cast is very strong nonetheless. Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly really take a huge drop through the film. In early scenes, when their drug consumption is relatively reasonable, I found myself thinking of how they made the most gorgeous couple in the world. I mean, they both look good, Leto with his babyface, Connelly and those big blue eyes, that sensual mouth… And they’re adorable together, so madly in love…. That makes it even more wrenching to then watch them go through a downward spiral of self-destruction, ending up ugly and pathetic… Leto all sweaty and shifty, his arm an infected wreck, Connelly a desperate girl ready to do anything or anyone for one more fix. A bit on the sides of this is Tyrone, the cool black dude who gradually loses his rap and his mojo, and becomes just… sad. Marlon Wayans does a very good job in the role, playing down the showiness and crooked comic talent he displayed last summer in “Scary Movie” in which he made us laugh as a goofy pothead. Well, I don’t think there’s any laugh here, there’s hardly enough air to breathe.
This movie is disturbing, horrifying… It’s an excruciating experience, really, but it’s also riveting, absolutely brilliant filmmaking that always keep you on the edge of your seat. I left the Imperial theatre all stirred up, pushing back tears, feeling drained and awfully sorry for these people I grew to care about. See this movie and you’ll never want to do hard drugs. Well, it might not be easy to see it, as this is a rather limited release, in great part because of the thick-headedness of the MPAA, which almost gave the film the kiss of death by slapping it with a NC-17 rating. Artisan decided to release it Unrated instead, but that still cut back its chances of being widely seen and discussed, which is really too bad. True, this is an extremely graphic film, so hardcore that it makes “Trainspotting” seem like an after-school special, but it has to be. Being hung up on smack isn’t PG-13, it’s NC-17 and then some. Things get ugly, and the movie is just being upfront in showing it. I hope that at least the voters of the Academy make the effort to see it and reward it for all its merits. So far this year, this movie has the Best Direction, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Actress (Burstyn)… And when January comes along, it will surely hold a very high place on my Top Ten.