Requiem For A Dream



US 2000
dir Darren Aronofsky
scr Aronofsky and Hubert Selby Jr, based on Selby Jr’s novel
cin Matthew Libatique
stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly
102 minutes

A bracing descent into the hell of addiction, Requiem For A Dream is a full-bore blast from a young director high on the possibilities of cinema. Undeniably powerful stuff, but, as with Aronofsky’s debut, Pi, you suspect a hollow at the core of his pyrotechnic skills – and there’s a unsettling note of adolescent glee in his determination to put his actors, characters and audience through his gruelling movie. It’s like being on a thunderous rollercoaster – you’re tremendously shaken up by the time you exit the cinema, but there’s something naggingly mechanical about the relentless ordeal.

Pi was an original, diverting show-off little picture which ultimately vanished up the black hole of its own cleverness. But while that film ‘starred’ off-putting egghead Sean Gullette as its demented mathematician hero, Requiem revolves around Ellen Burstyn, whose staggering central performance gives the film has a heart as well as a brain. Her Sara Goldfarb is a sixtysomething widow, living alone in her grim Brooklyn apartment with only her TV set for company. She frets over her good-for-nothing son Harry (Leto) who, with his best pal Tyrone (Wayans) is drifting off the straight and narrow into crime and drug addiction, dragging down his fashion-designer girlfriend, Marion (Connelly). The only bright spot on Sara’s horizon comes when she get a phone call inviting her to appear on a TV show – and she becomes obsessed with fitting into the red dress she wore to Harry’s graduation. But she can’t stick to any diet. An uninterested doctor prescribes “slimming pills,” and Sara’s impatience leads her to ‘exceed the stated dose,’ as they say on the bottles.

Cue addiction, dementia, hallucinations, physical and mental deterioration, electro-shock therapy, the works. Sara’s increasingly horrific experiences are intercut with the similarly downbeat spirals of decline suffered by Marion, who drifts into degradation and prostitution, and Leto and Wayans, whose trip to Florida in search of drug supplies sees them end up in a brutal southern jail, Leto’s addiction wreaking a terrible price on his wracked body.

Aronofsky deploys a bulging bag of cinematic tricks to convey his characters’ mental states: quick and slow motion, split screens, distorted sound and images, extreme close-ups, jarring zooms and pans, all set to a eclectic soundtrack that showcases a terrific, haunting score from the Kronos Quartet. The technique occasionally spills into overkill – there are countless identical shots of dilating pupils – which is entirely in keeping with the extreme nature of Selby Jr’s source novel, an unbroken stream of hardcore imagery.

But there are a few fuzzy areas in the adaptation – Requiem pivots on the TV show Sara constantly watches (and she only ever watches one) but it’s never clear what kind of programme it is. Talk show? Quiz show? Dieting show? Some combination of the three? Many other elements – including Sara’s electroshock treatment – seem oddly anachronistic, a direct result of Aronofsky’s decision to set Selby Jr’s 60s novel in the present day. Selby Jr himself appears as a southern jailer, maniacally tormenting his hapless characters, seeming to exult in the way the movie punches its audience so forcefully in the face.

It isn’t quite all gloom, however. Even the ending, with the central quartet pretty much at rock bottom, has tentative sparks of optimism – Tyrone’s brave, stoic loyalty to Harry effectively saves his friend’s life. Just as powerful: after visiting Sara in hospital, two of her friends wordlessly embrace on a wintry bench. The camera pulls back as if ashamed of itself, but simultaneous aware it must record this simple human gesture of consolation, this heartbreaking glimmer of hard-won, hopeful warmth among the cold ashes of despair.

February 15th, 2001

by Neil Young
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