Style over Substance Abuse

Virtuosic scenes save Requiem for a Dream

Student filmmakers love shooting bad-drug-trip movies. The genre has built-in moral righteousness, it offers no end of vicarious degradation—and best of all, it's a handy excuse to let it all hang out stylistically. On this count, writer/ director Darren Aronofsky shoots the works (no pun intended) with Requiem for a Dream, his punishing, technically astonishing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 novel.

Aronofsky follows the delusions of four Brooklynites as each slides into a habit he or she can't kick. Junkie Harry (Jared Leto) dreams of making a big score as a dealer with his partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). All he needs is one push, and he'll be set up in bliss with his girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), who's turned on by dangerous thrills. It also means he won't have to break into his mother's apartment every month to hock her prized TV. His mom, Mrs. Goldfarb, played by Ellen Burstyn in a terrifying performance, sits in front of the tube for hours each day, nursing dreams of stardom on a motivational infomercial. Addiction is a way of life, whether the drug of choice is food, TV or pills. The only difference is whether it kills the soul, the brain or the body—and how fast.

In Selby's searing vision, it's not the junk that's the killer; it's the false hope of escape. There's nothing worse than getting hooked on hope. The drugs may be the fastest path to the bottom, but it's the fear of failure and the dangled carrot of Easy Street that drives the characters to dope. In this sense, as well as in its chilling distortion of wide-screen space, the movie calls to mind Nicholas Ray's amazing 1955 drama Bigger Than Life, in which professor James Mason gets hooked on cortisone to feel like an all-American big shot. Here, worried that she's too fat to appear on TV, Mrs. Goldfarb begins popping diet pills: her goal is to fit into a red dress that comes more and more to resemble a straitjacket. Harry's get-rich-quick schemes end up fueling his habit, which kills off his libido, his love and his aspirations in short order. There are 12 steps out of this dope-stoked spiral, and they all lead down.

The most empathetic drug movies, like Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy, generally convey the elation of drug use as well as its flame-out. Aronofsky and Selby, who co-wrote the script, refuse even this hint of release. The first time someone shoots up, Aronofsky depicts the rush in a rapid-fire montage, from needle to plunger to constricted pupil, that's amusing in its machine-like precision. From there, though, the string of images is repeated so many times it becomes deliberately irritating. Ritualized pleasure becomes mechanized grind—the sweet needle as dentist's drill. Aronofsky's robotic cross-cutting among the four principals assumes a lockstep rhythm that accelerates as their lives circle the drain.

As impressive a filmmaker as Aronofsky is, he remains something of a style in search of a subject. His first film, the digital-era sci-fi shocker Pi, yoked a dazzling, even visionary visual sense to distressingly timid ideas: for all its feverish black-and-white imagery, the movie had little more on its mind than the moldy egghead rebuke "There are some things man wasn't meant to know." Here, working with Pi cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Jay Rabinowitz, Aronofsky batters the viewer with sped-up motion, shock cuts, and jittery waist-level shots that practically impale the subject, accompanied by bursts of noise that are alternately lulling and assaultive. (It probably looks really cool on drugs.) But his ideas, at their most banal, boil down to drugs-are-bad boilerplate, which raises the suspicion that he was drawn to the material by its potential for nonstop shock value.

Even so, the best scenes have a ferocious, intrusive intensity that doesn't let up. Most of those scenes involve Burstyn, who, in a kind of flipside performance to her cracked-up beauty queen in 1972's The King of Marvin Gardens, gives a devastating glimpse of a dream decomposing. As the four characters' assorted hopes crash and burn, bottoming out in madness, mutilation and worse, the movie culminates in a 20-minute trainwreck of illusions that's as relentless as it is virtuosic. Filmmakers will be stealing from and emulating this sequence for years to come. That doesn't make Requiem for a Dream any easier to sit through, but consider yourself both warned and encouraged to make the effort.

Requiem for a Dream was directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Hubert Selby Jr. and Aronofsky; produced by Eric Watson and Palmer West; and stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans. Now playing at the Art Theatre in Long Beach.

 
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