Forget every movie you've ever seen about the downward spiral of drug addiction. "Drugstore Cowboy," "Sid and Nancy," "Trainspotting," "Permanent Midnight," and more recently "Jesus' Son" -- these films are almost as innocuous as "Alice in Wonderland" compared to "Requiem for a Dream."
Director Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to the uniquely mind-bending mathematical-theological thriller "Pi," this adaptation of a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr. is a soul-rattling, cerebral and cinematically ingenious runaway train of gruesome overindulgence.
Set against the forlorn backdrop of a deteriorating Coney Island, "Requiem" stars a rail-thin Jared Leto ("Fight Club," "Girl, Interrupted") as Harry, a minor-league heroin dealer who has already copped a bad habit for his own product. As the movie opens he's broken into his mother's apartment to steal her TV -- which is chained to the wall because it's not the first time this has happened -- so he can pawn it to pay for a hit.
His mother (Ellen Burstyn) -- who cowers in a closet as her son ransacks her home -- is a lonely, ungracefully aging, threadbare woman with addictions of her own. From a deep cranny in her recliner, she watches self-help infomercials all day long and pops under-the-counter diet pills by the handful.
Even though it's painfully clear these are, at the very least, damaged people, Aronofsky deliberately gives the picture a misleading air of heroin chic at first. He introduces Harry's carefree best friend (Marlon Wayans, in a surprising solid dramatic performance) and his beautiful, urbane girlfriend (the under-rated Jennifer Connelly) with whom he has a powerful romantic bond. (In a poignant scene of intimacy, Aronofsky creatively splits the screen to show a close-up of tender caress on one half, and the rapturous facial reaction on the other.)
We know they're all junkies, but they're attractive, healthy junkies with dreams for the future that appear to be within grasp.
Then Aronofsky pulls the rug out from the characters and the audience, using it to drag all of us down a dark flight of stairs and into a harrowing dungeon of chemical dependency.
Shooting up slowly becomes a several-times-a-day routine for Harry and company as they get yoked to their devouring need for drugs. Heroin deals misfire and savings goes up in smoke. Marion (Connelly) begins trading her body (and with it her fragile self-esteem) for a fix, sometimes at the urging of her once-protective love, who promises "just this once."
Meanwhile, Harry's mother is descending into her own erratic, eventually hallucinogenic, parallel purgatory. Her weight loss drugs are essentially nothing but a dangerous mix of speed and amphetamines that she's begun combining randomly in back-to-back doses that send her mind into a waking nightmare from which she can't escape.
It's not just that these scenes are hard to watch. It's that "Requiem" becomes a horror movie of genuine horrors (infected needles, traumatic aberrations, lascivious sexual indignities) amplified ten-fold by Aronofsky's psyche-plumbing, genius-level reinvention of the cinematic drug trip. Yet it's exactly this unhinged brilliance and visionary retooling of the genre which makes it impossible to look away no matter how graphic and grisly things get.
Matching Aronofsky's consecrated focus on the project, his entire cast give nothing short of profound performances, immersing themselves in their characters' disquieting subconscious minds.
Leto inspires pained commiseration as he drives hopped-up, paranoid Harry off a metaphorical cliff at 100 miles per hour. Connelly inspires solemn pity as Marion debases herself in a drug-fueled orgy after her habit has consumed her every resource. And Burstyn seizes the heart of the movie with a astonishing, plaintive, forlorn performance that gives way to chaos and bewildered disorientation as her character's brittle mental state is sent into fierce convulsions by her inadvertently haphazard diet drug cocktails.
In the early going, the film has some trouble finding its footing, in part just because Aronofsky's methods are such a departure from customary filmmaking that it's hard to understand what he's aiming for at times. When a refrigerator lurches out of its kitchen nook and heaves at Burstyn in a hallucination, is it supposed to be scary or funny, or both? Why do these dope fiends seem (at first anyway) so handsome and robust?
It should be noted also that if it were not for Aronofsky's innovative sense of visual kinetics and cinematic power, the story wouldn't be all that compelling until the third act. But "Requiem" is exhaustively different right up to the closing credits, which is why you'll leave the theater very shaken but at the same time spectacularly impressed.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th October 2000
Box Office USA: $2.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $7.4M
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
Production compaines: Artisan Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 104 Rotten: 29
IMDB: 8.4 / 10
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb, Jared Leto as Harry Goldfarb, Jennifer Connelly as Marion Silver, Marlon Wayans as Tyrone C. Love, Christopher McDonald as Tappy Tibbons, Louise Lasser as Ada, Marcia Jean Kurtz as Rae, Janet Sarno as Mrs. Pearlman, Suzanne Shepherd as Mrs. Scarlini, Mark Margolis as Mr. Rabinowitz
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