Requiem for a Dream (2000)

reviewed by
Shannon Patrick Sullivan


REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) / ****

Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Hubert Selby Jr and Aronofsky, based on the novel "Last Exit To Brooklyn" by Selby Jr. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated R for controversial subject matter by the MFCB. Reviewed on February 18th, 2001.

By SHANNON PATRICK SULLIVAN

The hiss of a burner. The thrust of a needle injecting into the bloodstream. The dilation of a pupil as the drug takes effect. These are the images director Darren Aronofsky invokes over and over again in "Requiem For A Dream", one of the most remarkable, affecting and devastating movies in recent history. This is a film about drugs and the people who are hooked on them. But Aronofsky, not content merely to portray their debilitating influence on the lives of his characters, also uses brilliant cinematic trickery to draw the audience into the addict's frame of mind. "Requiem" is a trip in its own right -- disorienting and exhilarating and exhausting -- and that is perhaps most disturbing of all.

Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) is a twentysomething junkie with an ever-present need to get high. He's not the only one: his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are addicts too. Harry even goes so far as to steal furniture from the home of his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) to sell to a pawnbroker for a few bucks. (In one notable early scene, Sara drops by shortly thereafter and buys back the furniture: this is evidently a routine that has been repeated many times.) Harry and Tyrone dream of graduating from buyers to dealers; for his part, Harry hopes to repay his mother for everything she's put up with over the years, and wants to fund Marion's dream of becoming a fashion designer. But neither of them really appreciates the peril inherent in their line of work -- from rival sellers, from the law, and of course from the drugs themselves.

Sara, meanwhile, is a widow who has all but given up on the remaining years of her life. She spends her time eating junk food and watching television, or sitting in a lawn chair in front of her apartment building with other aging belles, gossiping and getting sunburnt. One day, Sara gets a phone call which leads her to believe that she will soon appear on her favourite programme, a bizarre combination of game show and self-help promo. Sara seizes on this as an excuse to lose weight and get back in shape, and on the advice of one of the other women visits a doctor who prescribes her a daily menu of diet pills. At first, everything goes well and the pounds seem to drop off. Soon, though, the prescribed dosage just doesn't seem to be working as well as it used to, so Sara doubles up... and doubles up again... and again...

"Requiem For A Dream" benefits from several outstanding performances, none of them more exceptional than Burstyn's. Hers is as courageous, as difficult a performance as they come: Burstyn assumes an already pitiable character and exposes herself to indignity piled upon indignity. Sara Goldfarb represents what I expect many people dread as they age. She is a woman who no longer lives her days but merely endures them, whose future seems destined to consist of nothing more than the same tedious routine. She has no prospects, nor the energy to manufacture them.

It is hard, then, to not feel a glimmer of hope for Sara when she believes she might appear on her game show. It's fairly obvious from the start that this is a hoax, but perhaps this is just what Sara needs to reinvigorate her life. It is, therefore, all the more horrifying and disturbing to witness her downward spiral into diet pill addiction. Instead of Sara being lifted out of her routine, that routine has simply been made more terrifying. For instance, the fridge is no longer a source of transient comfort, but is now a monstrous nightmare: Sara hallucinates it burbling nastily and lurching toward her. The second half of the movie, as Sara's appearance crumbles while her days race by in an addiction-fueled blur, is as scary as a formula slasher films put together.

Also well-handled is Harry's story, even though these segments are somewhat less absorbing -- perhaps because Harry and his friends just aren't as sympathetic as Sara. Leto gives a solid performance, mixing a naive optimism with the obstinacy and resourcefulness necessary to maintain his lifestyle. Harry's real tragedy is that he believes he can use drugs to his own advantage, when in reality it is the drugs that are using him. For instance, consider how, near the end, Harry willfully ignores the deterioration of his own health because he refuses to accept anything that might come between him and his fix. Wayans (so far removed from "Scary Movie" so as to be virtually unrecognisable) and Connelly turn in laudable supporting performances, as addicts who meet their own dismal fates.

As important to "Requiem" as its strong acting is Aronofsky's direction. He embraces his medium here, employing such devices as quick editing, enhanced sound, and unusual perspectives to portray the universe from the disjointed point of view of his characters. (In most hands, the sight of an angry refrigerator would appear preposterous; here, it is petrifying.) In one notable scene, Harry and Marion are in bed together. Aronofsky divides the screen in two, with one half focussing on Harry and the other on Marion. Despite the fact that we know they are lying next to each other, their influence is barely felt beyond the edges of the other's frame. In this way, Aronofsky effectively conveys how the couple is together, and yet vastly apart -- a facet of their relationship which becomes increasingly pronounced later in the film, when a shortage of drugs drives them to desperate recourses.

Perhaps most astonishingly, Aronofsky successfully tells his story in "Requiem" without ever seeming preachy. This is a film of brutal, awful reality, not just another "Afterschool Special"-type exercise, and is infinitely more effective as a result. Forget narcotics and pharmaceuticals: after viewing "Requiem For A Dream", you'll think twice before popping so much as a vitamin pill.

Copyright 2001 Shannon Patrick Sullivan. Archived at The Popcorn Gallery, http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies/RequiemForADream.html

_______________________________________________________________________ / Shannon Patrick Sullivan | "We are all in the gutter, but some of us \ | shannon@mun.ca | are looking at the stars." - Oscar Wilde | \___________________________|__________________________________________/ | Popcorn Gallery Movie Reviews www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies.html | | Doctor Who: A Brief History of Time (Travel) /drwho.html |


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