Imagine Trainspotting without any trace of humor and you're on the right track. Picture Pasolini's Salo: 120 Days of Sodom shot by some MTV music video kid interested in the novelty of his new camera. Darren Aronofsky (Pi) stacks one degrading sight atop another without implicating the viewer, nor providing any framework or reference for his visual rape of his audience - all smoke and mirrors disguising a great, vapid emptiness.
For starters, I've never seen Coney Island junkies who look as pretty as Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), who bear a passing resemblance to the kids from Calvin Klein ads. They're drug dealers who have high aspirations, saving their earnings for a better tomorrow. Placing all their cash in a locker, they sit under the boardwalk smoking up and dreaming their grandiose dreams. Too bad they get high too often off their own supply. The good times can't last forever.
The drug use scenes are done in vivid smash cuts showing dilating pupils, squeezing needles, the sizzle of white powder cooked in a spoon. We never see these kids shoot up -- rather, we see abstract images. Every time this technique appears, it's too flashy and aware of its own experimental filmmaking approach, a purely stylistic flourish.
Kronos Quartet wrote the driving, thumping, angry, brutal violin score which drums like a hammer and chain beating you into submission. Harry, Tyrone, and their ambitious if drug addled friend Marion (a very good Jennifer Connelly), who could be a great designer were it not for her plunge into addiction, eventually become slaves to their own destructive destinies. They run out of money, and in the second half of the movie they move through a bleak winter, suffering the eternal torments of the damned.
Each situation is set up so neatly, we're certain where the path will lead. Harry sports a nasty welt on his arm which doesn't look so good. Tyrone discovers that maybe that trip to Florida to track down some fresh supply was a bad idea -- since them southern boys don't like colored folk. Marion eventually telephones a sadistic pimp (Keith David) and sells her body for drugs.
The movie's first scene involves Harry stealing his mom's television set. She can always go right down the block in half an hour and buy it back. That's their adorable dog and pony show, and poor Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is too nice, too soft around the edges, so apathetic she won't do anything about it. Her husband is dead, Harry is all she's got left.
Ellen Burstyn is so good, so unglamorous and believable as a Brighton Beach Jewish mama, that she shines through Aronofsky's bag of tricks and delivers a strong, sad, comic performance. At first, Sara seems to share the addiction of the film's other characters, endlessly watching her television, but when she gets a surprise phone call asking her to appear on a TV show she realizes she's too overweight to fit into the red dress her husband once admired her in. She goes on a diet.
Unfortunately for the audience, midway through we realize that Sara's in trouble. She's gone to a quack doctor for some diet pills, which turn out to be speed. She's gnashing her teeth in no time, and the worst is yet to come.
Sara's refrigerator starts roaring like a lion as the images become fuzzy and, well, straight out of Terry Gilliam's superior Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In short order, Sara wears the same junkie shoes as her younger co-stars. While it's painful to watch a harmless old woman descend into the circle of hell, she could easily have escaped it by going to another doctor for a second opinion.
Some critics are sure to fawn over Requiem. It goes further than most films into uncomfortable territory, and the spinning visuals are technically accomplished. I'm sure Darren Aronofsky's courage will be extolled -- yes, it's so bold to show human misery without sympathy or understanding.
I'm not against violence or torture onscreen. The best film to compare Requiem to is Pasolini's Salo. Wisely, Pasolini used restraint with his camera and simply filmed people being sexually abused and beaten without showy fanfare. Salo creates a hollow, disturbing feeling of helplessness.
Ultimately, Aronofsky lacks that crucial insight when showing the nature of horror. His gaze feels inexperienced. Perhaps young filmmakers should not attempt to tackle the bleak world before they have had a chance to go through it themselves. (Salo was Pasolini's final film; Mike Leigh's bleak Naked was made when he was middle aged.)
Once we get past the notion that addiction is a horrible thing (which I don't believe is news to anyone who will watch Requiem for a Dream), the question remains: What purpose does this film serve? Let me know if you figure it out.
UPDATE: Now available on DVD, this "director's cut" is actually just the theatrical cut -- so make your own decision about what that says about Aronofsky's arrogance and self-obsession. On the small screen, Requiem is as bleak, hopeless, and nauseating as ever, and on his commentary track, Aronofsky is proud of that. (While most critics have raved, audiences have sided with us -- the film earned only $3.6 million theatrically; its budget was $4.5 million.) Requiem junkies (pun intended) will find plenty to love about this disc, which makes an excellent companion to the trippy Web site. Aside from making-of footage, deleted scenes (mostly junk), and an extensive interview with novel author Hubert Selby (wherein he reveals he was brain damaged at birth -- I believe it!), the clever navigation system is built around one of Tappy Tibbons' infomercials. However, all of this is undone by the inclusion of an illiterate, two-page "review" of the film courtesy of gossip-monger Harry Knowles as a printed insert. Check out Fight Club's DVD if you want to see how to incorporate movie reviews in your packaging... this is just sad.
Anyway, while this editor feels Kipp has been a bit tough on Requiem, he's certainly on the right track -- and as always, we invite your continued letters and comments. -CN
Dreaming a little Dream.
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: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 104 Rotten: 29
IMDB: 8.4 / 10
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriter: Darren Arronofsky, Hubert Selby Jr.
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