By Ron Wells | November 21, 2001

Sophomore features can often reveal the most about a new filmmaker’s talent and skill. After a splash of a debut picture, a director can become a known quantity. They have gained experience but still retain their hunger to prove themselves. The choices made at this time can most define what the audience can expect through the following five or ten years of their careers. Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” were second features; so was Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats”. Darren Aronofsky made a huge splash a few years ago with “Pi”. Now he’s come out with guns blazing in a fierce adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel, “Requiem for a Dream”, and it’s gonna be a rough ride.
This is about the dreams and nightmares of four people. The center of action is Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto). Harry’s a drug addict, just like best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Whenever they’re short on funds for a fix, they hock the television belonging to Harry’s mom, Sara (Ellen Burstyn). Living near New York’s Coney Island, the pair prefer heroin, but they wouldn’t turn up their noses at ecstasy or crystal meth, either. Neither would Harry’s beautiful girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connely).
Marion seems to have the most going on. Armed with a moderate trust fund, she dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Sara usually doesn’t dare to dream of any escape from the lonely old ladies of her tenement building until she’s notified that she might be a contestant on her favorite game show. Harry and Tyrone only dream of having enough cash and drugs to stop scraping by. It won’t end well for anybody.
Sara desperately wants to look presentable for TV, so she dies her gray hair red. When she finds she can not fit into her favorite dress, she goes to the doctor for some diet pills. Very quickly, she begins to lose weight.
The simple solution for Harry’s and Tyrone’s problems is to become drug dealers. This seems to work out pretty well, at least for a while. Unfortunately, neither these two, nor Marion notice how their drug habits are creeping up on them.
Those three at least have some knowledge and experience about what they’re doing. Sara has no such luck. As her diet pills are basically just amphetamines, she is woefully unprepared for the side effects. Worse, she in unprepared for what happens when her body begins to adjust to them.
The rest of our anti-heroes are only unprepared for a violent, city-wide gang war that halts the supply of heroin throughout New York City. Nothing good ensues.
Now, I watch something like 200 films per year, and writing for Film Threat I see a lot of nasty stuff. Sadly, I’ve got more than a passing familiarity with the drug world, and I can spot an actor or director who’s bullshitting their way through it a mile away. Having said that, the last half an hour of “Requiem for a Dream” may well be the most harrowing 30 minutes of film I have ever seen. Yes, EVER SEEN. Aronofsky is relentless as he cuts back and forth between the downward spirals of four different lost souls. The editing becomes more frenetic as it nears the end and all the characters near the bottom. Selby is a poet of despair, and much of what occurs hit way too close to home for me. The final shots of this film offer no hope, and no redemption. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I never wanted to be near any kind of narcotic ever again, or whether I needed something just to calm the f**k down.
The biggest question raised about this movie is, “what’s the point?” What’s the point of all this despair and ugliness? Artisan, the distributor, has had to release this film unrated as it has no hope of attaining an “R” rating. Many wonder what could have possibly attracted the director to depict all this madness.
“Pi” is a movie about a quest to discover the underlying order of the universe. Its hero finds only madness. None of the four characters in “Requiem for a Dream” would think they had much to claim as their own. By the closing credits they all find out how much they really had to lose. They used to have hope. They began with their dreams, but each took some shortcuts to attain them. Each of these shortcuts led them down the wrong path. Eventually, they learned they could lose their freedom, their dignity, or even their sanity. In one case, one of our anti-heroes loses something he can never get back. They end their journeys in their own personal hells, alone.
The cast is uniformly amazing. Ellen Burstyn should get an Oscar just for how bad Aronofsky makes her look. It’s Aronofsky who really comes into his own here. Occasionally reminiscent of John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” in style, “Requiem for a Dream” can connect with its audience at an almost primal level. It’s not for everybody. Many in the screening with me were completely turned off by it. The director “gets” habitual drug use in an important aspect: the editing highlights the ritual of use, and the comfort that ritual provides to the user. In the process, he’s crafted a film that unlike most other “drug” films, like “Trainspotting”, manages for once not to glorify drug use; not even a little bit.
With this movie, Aronofsky sends a couple of messages. One, of course, is about how much habitual drug use can fuel your delusions and what that combination can take away from you. The other message is that the director is now a major American filmmaker. I’m already giddy wondering what that “Batman” movie he’s going to do next will be like.
Read FILM THREAT’s exclusive interview with the director right now! Click on over to DREAMS FULFILLED: A DARREN ARONOFSKY INTERVIEW>>>

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