Requiem for a Dream (2000)

reviewed by
Richard A. Zwelling

**** (out of ****)
a film review by
Richard A. Zwelling

There are countless films about drug addiction, but never before I have I seen one this visceral, this devastating, and this wonderful. That might seem like an odd way to describe a film like Requiem, but I can think of no more appropriate way to describe Darren Aronofsky's directing, the high quality of acting, and the unsparing way in which the film shows the grisliest and most unpleasant consequences of drug addiction.

The story essentially starts as two distinct parts told in parallel. One story involves Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), and their friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), three heroin addicts living in Coney Island, New York, each with a dream for a better life. Their plan is to score a pound of pure heroin and sell it for profit, so that there will be, as one of them puts it, "no more hassles". In order to get quick money, so that they can make immediate purchases, Harry goes to the apartment of his mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), and steals her television. He then pawns it, and Sara goes out to retrieve it. This process, as we find out, has been routine for some time.

The second story tells of Sara herself. Harry has long since moved out, and her husband Seymour passed away some time ago. Alone, overweight, and not very bright, Sara is at a loss for a reason to get up in the morning and face each day. She is also a TV junkie, and she in particularly enamored with the program of Tappy Tibbons, an Anthony Robbins type who hosts an infomercial for positive living. Normal people, like Sara, are often brought up on stage as a testament to the American Dream. They are healthy, beautiful, and successful in life, and one afternoon, Sara gets a phone call telling her she has won a chance to appear on the show.

Overcome with joy at the chance to be on television, Sara has finally found a purpose again. She begins a plan to lose weight, but her efforts at dieting do not succeed, and she is not cognizant of the fact that the phone call is most likely a scam. Desperate to drop the pounds, she goes to a doctor who prescribes unmarked, unlabelled pills for her to take at meal times and at night before she goes to bed. Unaware of how easily the pills energize her during the day and sedate her at night, Sara blindly pops pills and continues to watch the infomercial, dreaming of her chance to smile and look beautiful in front of millions of people, and it does not take long for the fantasies (and the pills) to begin taking their tolls.

One of the most difficult things about watching the rest of Requiem comes from concern for the characters. Despite their heinous actions, the central characters really are good people, and it is always painful to see good people suffer horrible tragedies. I will not lie in saying that the film's final act is among the most brutal and disturbing material I have ever experienced. That said, it is also among the most brilliant. As we watch the four characters plummet towards their nadirs, we cut back and forth between each of their dire circumstances, and the cuts grow increasingly more rapid and urgent as the tension builds towards the jarring climax.

The film's more controversial elements are so graphic and unsettling that when it was initially submitted to the MPAA, it was awarded the dreaded NC-17 "kiss of death". Aronofsky appealed the rating personally, without success, but Artisan stood by the film and agreed to release it unrated. Despite this, the film did not enjoy any sort of success on the financial end. This is a film simply too disturbing for mainstream audiences. Its lack of popular appeal showed at the 2001 Oscars where its sole nomination belonged to Academy veteran Burstyn (Best Actress).

Not that I expected any differently, but this is undoubtedly a film that should have received more attention than it did. Ever since I saw Aronofsky's directorial debut, the arts house hit Pi, I have been captivated by his unique style, and Requiem is, quite simply, a tour de force of directing. The more unconventional sequences in the film involve such visually captivating images as a split screen dividing two people lying adjacent on the same bed, a rapid montage showing the process of shooting up (described by Aronofsky as "hip-hop montage"), and my personal favorite, the "Snorri-cam" which gives a closeup of a moving subject while the camera is attached to his or her waist, making the face seem stationary and the background seem dynamic.

Clint Mansell, who wrote some original music for Pi, returns here as the composer for the entire score for Requiem. Also featured is the Kronos String Quartet, one of my favorite classical performing groups. When I first heard of their collaboration, I struggled with the idea of string instruments on top of Clint Mansell's edgy electronica, but the result was a beautiful, haunting compliment to the action on-screen. Without the score's grotesque dissonances and relentless interjections, the disturbing nature of the film would have been halved.

It also helps tremendously that the actors go all out in portraying their unenviable characters. I was familiar with Marlon Wayans mostly as a comic actor (who could forget Don't Be A Menace?), but after seeing Requiem, I found out that he has considerable background in dramatic studies. It shows in the high quality of his performance. At Aronofsky's request, Jared Leto would avoid eating for a prolonged period of time and then seat himself in front of the rest of the crew eating from a buffet line. This was done to increase the believability of the effects of drug addiction. Jennifer Connelly, along with giving a brilliant supporting performance, displays her bravery and dedication by appearing nude in extremely unflattering circumstances. The nudity is disturbing, and not at all erotic.

The gold-medal performance, however, belongs to Ellen Burstyn, who at 67 years old gives one of the most heartbreaking, painful, and unsettlingly real performances I have ever witnessed cinematically. Throwing vanity and glamour aside, she spent four hours a day applying prosthetics and makeup to give the illusion of an overweight, lonely mother in the waning years of her life. As the story progresses, and her character changes, Burstyn fills Sarah with an incredibly subtle blend of empty hopefulness, woeful naïveté, and when appropriate, uncontrollable psychosis.

There are a number of other things I could say about Requiem, as it is one of my favorite movies, but there really is no substitute for seeing it. The effect the film has on a purely visceral level is beyond any description I could give through written word. The story, admittedly, is one that could easily come across as trite and preachy, if handled improperly. Aronofsky's directing, however, is so compelling and visually engaging, that it refuses to let the audience go. Although the look of the film is highly stylized, its primary function is to serve the story, and not to stand out on its own.

In the end, the result is not clichéd sermonizing. Instead, we are given a disturbingly clinical picture of dreams destroyed, and lives ruined in their pursuit. The rare combination of a dynamite soundtrack, spectacular acting, innovative and delectable direction, and altogether unsparing storytelling make this movie a triumphant four-star opus.

Copyright 2003 Richard A. Zwelling
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