Requiem for a Dream (DVD, 2001, Unrated) Reviews
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Requiem for a Dream (DVD, 2001, Unrated)

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Wasted Days and Wasted Nights: Darren Aronofsky Wakes Us From the Drug Dream

Sep 2, 2001 (Updated Aug 28, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The performances, especially Burstyn's, are gripping; visual style is eye-popping

Cons:The mood is unrelentingly grim; some scenes of depravity will shock and offend viewers

The Bottom Line: Unnerving, sad, horrific, squalid: Aronofsky's film is Trainspotting's American cousin and should be required viewing for anyone, age 15 to 65, who thinks drugs are "cool."

Darren Aronofsky movies feel like hypodermic needles sinking into your eyeballs. His first film, Pi (1998), was an excruciating trip inside math and migraine headaches. His second film, Requiem for a Dream, is just as painful to watch, but if you can tolerate the needle, it’s more rewarding—sort of like junk flowing through your veins for two hours.

Even though he had a fascinating story to tell in Pi—a mathematical genius who finds patterns in the stock market which seem to reflect religious prophecies is pursued by Wall Street traders and Hasidic Jews—Aronofsky shot it in such a way that brought on pain…literally. Grainy black and white images, flicker-cut editing, harsh lighting—all of it designed to induce headaches. It was, I suppose, experiential cinema; the total immersion into the head of a character. But theater chains would have been well-advised to dispense aspirin with the buckets of popcorn.

Requiem for a Dream uses many of the same techniques and has the same unsettling, unflushed-toilet feel to it, but there is a deeper concern for its characters. I never cared if Pi’s Max lived or died, I just wanted him off the screen. In Requiem for a Dream, the low-life, stupendously weak-willed characters are ones I want to extend my hand to; I want to reach right through the screen and pull them up from the gutter. Maybe it’s the quartet of gutsy performances (Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans) or maybe it’s Aronofsky’s method of capturing the brick-wall of despair in such detail. Whatever it is, Requiem stabs the eyes and the heart.

Aronofsky co-wrote the screenplay with Hubert Selby Jr., whose 1978 novel is the basis for the film. Selby’s vision of bottom-of-the-barrel society is unrelentingly grim and squalid—think of him as the love-child of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg—but it translates to the screen with startling power. The gritty 1989 film Last Exit to Brooklyn also sprang from a Selby novel of the same name. Here, he and Aronofsky have collaborated to bring us what is one of the most powerful chronicles of drug addiction put to film—it’s right up there with Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Trainspotting (1996).

The setting is Coney Island, which forms an ironic backdrop with its rollercoasters, Ferris Wheels and games of chance. Here, in the midst of what was once America’s Dreamland, we witness the barely-scraping-by lives of Harry (Leto), his mother Sara (Burstyn), his girlfriend Marion (Connelly) and his best friend Tyrone (Wayans). As the movie begins, Harry locks his mother in a closet then wheels her television set down to the pawn shop for enough money to get another hit of heroin. What a nice son he is!

Sara eventually gets her TV back and Harry, Tyrone and Marion go on about their desperate, paranoid lives. In a lull between trips, they hit upon a scheme to score a big stash of drugs, then resell it on the street at a higher value, thus enabling them to retire and live out the American Dream, which in each of their cases is an ill-defined, dimly-conceived future. This is by no means a happy movie, so things go horribly, horribly wrong and they all end the film trapped in a nightmare of their own making.

Meanwhile, there’s poor, deluded Sara who spends her lonely, widowed days in her apartment watching TV. She tunes in to an endless infomercial featuring motivational speaker Tappy Tibbons (Christopher MacDonald) who urges listeners to “Join us in creating excellence!” He offers the cheery, sparkling world Sara longs for, a happy respite from her Social Security doldrums. One day, she gets a phone call telling her she’s won tickets to be on television. She grasps at this lifeline with all the desperation of a sinking swimmer. She will be on TV and she will be somebody! However, when she tries on the red dress she wore at Harry’s high school graduation, her dreams start to crumble. She’s gained weight since the last time she wore the dress and now the zipper won’t go more than halfway. Sara plummets into depression and, taking the advice of her front-stoop friends, she goes to see a doctor who prescribes diet pills. No problems at first: pop one in the morning, settle in to watch TV, and try to ignore the refrigerator, that cold white beast which has now become the Enemy. When you see it start to move and growl at you, pop another pill to calm your nerves. Don’t think about food—“Think thin!” Maybe another pill will help. And so, Sara descends into an addiction as horrific as her son’s.

If you think I’ve given away too much about Sara’s character, you’d be dead wrong. I’ve only grazed the surface of the mile-deep layers Burstyn brings to the role. It’s a physically-demanding role which requires her to go from sweet grandmotherly type to wild-eyed loony who’s lost weight, hair and dignity. It’s also the kind of part which calls for the kind of talent which convinces us that what we’re seeing on the screen is the real thing. This isn’t prettified Hollywood insanity—you firmly believe you are watching Burstyn the actress crack up before your very eyes. It’s that rare event—the kind of performance given by seasoned actresses who hit their stride when they’re given the chance to pull out all the stops during what should have been their retirement years (others include Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). It’s just a shame the Academy chose, in its infinite and puzzling wisdom, to award the Oscar statuette to Julia Roberts instead of Burstyn. While I’ve gone on record as being an admirer of Erin Brockovich, after seeing Requiem for a Dream (months after the Oscar gold dust had settled), I’d say the least La Julia could do is share the honor with Ms. Burstyn. After all, Julia didn’t do nearly eighty percent of her scenes alone with just a refrigerator as her co-star.

Burstyn is so good, in fact, that she nearly overshadows the solid work done by her human co-stars. Leto, Connelly and Wayans have never been better than they are here. They embody everything Selby is trying to say about the wreckage of human lives and the utter futility of climbing above circumstance—at least, it’s futile for these characters. As Aronofsky, a long-time fan of Selby’s work, says in the liner notes to the DVD: “The book is a manifesto on Addiction’s triumph over the Human Spirit. I began to look at the film as a monster movie. The only difference is that the monster doesn’t have physical form. It only lives deep in the characters’ heads.”

The evil of drugs has never had sharper claws or fouler-smelling breath than it does in Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky creates a rhythm of quick-edit sequences that is almost seductive in its approach (I counted twelve startling close-up images—heroin cooking on a spoon, the plunger of a syringe, a dilating pupil, etc.—in the space of five seconds), but there’s also something unnerving about that pop-pop-pop style of moviemaking. By the third time we get the same flicker-cut montage, we realize this isn’t cool visual poetry. It’s the dull drumbeat of addiction’s victory.

Recommend this product? Yes

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For his follow-up to his darkly brilliant debut, PI, director Darren Aronofsky chose to adapt a tough and meaty piece of work: Hubert Selby's 1968 nov...
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