Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 Pi was an edgy and thoughtful effort, a low-budget, black-and-white film that displayed intelligence and unusual promise with a fresh and original look to it. Requiem for a Dream, based on Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel of the same name, shows some of the same style, but this time the budget is bigger, the actors are established names, and color adds still another tool to Aronofsky’s crafty collection of cinematic techniques.
Technique is important here because Aronofsky’s films are both manneristic and expressionistic in spirit and style, exaggerating and distorting images for dramatic effect. He uses split screens, fast motion, fades to white, body-mounted cameras, repeated sequences, exaggerated sound effects – somewhat self-conscious methods that quite deliberately keep the viewer always aware of the filmmaker and what he is up to, much the way some painters use a thick impasto, so that, whatever the subject of the painting, technique stays in the forefront along with the pictorial subject.
Requiem,then, is a fitting choice for Aronofsky. It’s a story of descent into the hell of drugs and Aronofsky sets out to demonstrate both the seductive ecstasy of a high and the shattering anguish of addiction. In Selby’s distinctly Brooklynese Brighton Beach, Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) regularly pawns his mother’s television set to get drug money so that he and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) can get high. Sara (Ellen Burstyn) buys back her television without complaint. "He’s my only son," she explains to the pawnbroker, as if that made it all right.
But if sonny-boy is hooked on heroin, Mama has her own addiction: she’s hooked on TV and its packaged inspirational-motivational audience participation hoopla. A widow, Sara is lonely and "has no one to care for." She fills the void in her life with TV-delivered fantasies and she’s quickly hooked when she gets a promotional phone call telling her she may appear as a guest contestant. Hope is raised for her, even as hope is raised for Harry and his sidekick Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), who are working their plan to Easy Street, pushing dope.
Sara is determined to lose weight for her TV debut; she finds an unscrupulous doctor who freely writes prescriptions for diet pills. (She may be an innocent in these matters, but Sara, consciously or otherwise, surely chooses her own self-deceptions.) The stage is thus set for parallel plunges into the tormented nightmares of addiction. Aronofsky, like Selby, intends to take you into the very gut of that experience and he uses all of his considerable filmic skills to get you there. The last third of the film is unrelenting in its depiction of the self-degradation, physical decline, and emotional devastation that befalls these addicts.
But by the time Requiem descends into this bleak purgatory, it has also generated sympathy for its characters. None of them are "bad" people; rather, they are all too human folks whose elusive dreams play out against all too human weaknesses; though they may be less than admirable in their mistaken choices, the choices are their’s and the punishment is profound.
Ellen Burstyn’s remarkable and very brave performance as Sara would, in a more mainstream film, guarantee her an Academy Award nomination. What might have been merely pathetic achieves genuinely tragic dimension as Burstyn finds and exposes the heart and soul of Sara; her performance resounds with truth. When Harry tries to warn her off of the diet pills, she replies both fromher deepest need and from her sadly simple delusion of grandeur: "I’m somebody now, Harry! Everybody likes me! It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to smile."
Requiemfor a Dreamis talented filmmaking of unquestionable power. There are a great many elements to admire here, including the original score (Clint Mansell) played by the Kronos Quartet. The painful and distressingly grim conclusion seems inevitable after what has preceded, though it may have gone beyond what was necessary to make its point. Requiem for a Dream is grueling to watch and not all will care to stick it out. It’s a close call whether or not Aronofsky has fallen short of the line, leaving his tale, overall, this side of the tragic, stuck in the lesser territory of Grand Guignol.