movie review by
David Ng


(© 2000 Artisan Entertainment. All rights reserved.)

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Requiem for a Dream

The titular dream in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is the American one, the perversion of which sends four modern day Brooklynites, each addicted to drugs, on an agonizing descent to ever-lasting damnation. At times its hard to tell which is more addictive, the dream or the drug, and as Aronofsky has stated, the American dream is the ultimate drug. It doesn’t take long for these four deluded characters to start confusing the two. And eventually their dreams are replaced by the drug addiction, which seizes their ravaged, corpse-like bodies like some mutating virus. To watch them deteriorate before our eyes is repulsive and fascinating. Like figures in an El Greco painting, their grotesque forms approach something close to sainthood. Requiem for a Dream is indeed a requiem in the classical sense: a lush, almost beautiful outpouring of grief. Aronofsky, who reinvented paranoia in his black-and-white debut feature Pi, fills his palette with intense, weighty colors--purples, deep oranges, and black. Balanced by an alternately techno and lyrical score by Clive Mansell (and performed by the Kronos Quartet), Requiem for a Dream plunges into modernity and antiquity, transforming drug addiction into a religious state. In the words of one of its believers, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), a widow who becomes addicted to diet pills, "it makes tomorrow all right."

Sara Goldfarb’s son Harry (Jared Leto) is a drug addict and dealer, though by his innocent face, you’d think he’s just a nice Jewish boy. He has an idea: if he can score a cheap supply of narcotics and unload it quickly, he can earn enough cash to open his own store with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). It’s not clear what drugs Harry and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) are selling -- we see cocaine, marijuana and heroine in various raw and processed forms -- or who their supplier is, or who their clients are. It doesn’t matter. Requiem for a Dream speaks too broadly to make any lasting condemnation. It’s more interested in recreating the high, that immediate rush. Cutting between shifting eyeballs, hands exchanging money and dilated pupils, Aronofsky and editor Jay Rabinowitz are like Ritilan-deprived kids. Requiem has three times as many cuts as a typical film, which can be enervating and repetitive, but is appropriately trippy. It induces an apoplectic stupor which renders us powerless to resisting their hysteria. For Harry, the dream is almost as exciting as the drugs. But not quite.

As Harry and Marion "push off" for the night, they lie side by side, caressing each others’ skin, separated by a DePalma–inspired split screen. "You’re the most beautiful thing," Harry whispers. And it’s true. Pale, wide-eyed, and angelic, they transform drug addiction into a sensuous ennui. Aronofsky is smart to never show the drug takers and the drugs in the same frame; as a result, the drug takers retain their innocence. In the morning, Marion stands in front of a mirror, naked from the waist down. A series of flashes reveals cocaine entering a bloodstream. We cut back to Marion, high, her arms outstretched. And the screen fades to white, the white of pure bliss, or rather, oblivion.

Soon, those fades will turn to black, as their dreams of "easy street" grow faint. Tyrone gets busted by a police sting operation, setting in motion their inevitable descent to hell. Aronofsky’s effusive, in-your-face approach to these scenes, while hardly innovative, reaches new levels of biological gross-out. At one point, Marion, who’s just sold her body for cocaine, vomits directly into the camera. Harry, suffering from heroine withdrawal, develops an arm sore that starts oozing a thick, maroon pus. The scene where he sticks a needle into that same sore qualifies as the year’s scariest display of self-mutilation. Never flinching from the truly disgusting, Aronofsky conjures the essence of Biblical retribution. The sins of the ego are punished in the most vial, physical way. As Marion finds herself in the middle of an orgy (the scene that landed Requiem an NC-17 rating), her face not only registers pain, but hopelessness. Briefly, she looks upward to the God who has forsaken her.

Perhaps no one suffers more than Sara Goldfarb, the lonely widow with nothing to do but dream of appearing as a contestant on her favorite weight-loss infomercial. Too fat to fit in her favorite red dress, she becomes hooked on diet pills and starts hallucinating about flying cupcakes and man-eating refrigerators. Aronofsky lets himself go with Sara’s scenes, shooting them at various film speeds and with varying degrees of focus. Though showy, they have a vicious, merciless quality. Watching her is like observing a lab rat. In the movie’s most expressive scene, a drugged-up Sara aimlessly wanders the streets of Brooklyn. Photographed like an animated chalk-drawing by cinematographer Mathew Libatique, the scene achieves intimacy and distance as we are forced to watch Sara through her own deluded eyes. Burstyn clearly suffered her own trauma bringing Sara to life. Covered with prosthetic make-up and donning a fat suit, she still manages to impart some degree of self-awareness to her naïve, fragile-minded character. Her final scenes, in which she is institutionalized and subjected to painful rehab procedures, are some of the best of her career. When Sara finally emerges, her hair shorn off, her face drained of life, we might cry a little as we recoil in shock.

Like its musical score, Requiem for a Dream is a chamber piece for a quartet. The four protagonists are obvious representatives of their age, race, and gender. Their lives unfold like calculated, deliberate etudes, impersonal, but moving in an academic way. The screenplay, by Aronofsky and Hubert Selby Jr. (based on Selby's book), is also divided into fours -- the four seasons. Beginning in summer and ending in winter, the movie hardens as it progresses. The only warmth the characters can feel is their own as they each curl up in the fetal position. If the movie also leaves us cold, it has done its job. Dreams and drugs are nothing to play with.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]