No. 20: “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)

“Somebody like you can really make things all right for me.” ~~Harry Goldfarb

Be forewarned: Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” is a dismal affair, a punishing bit of filmmaking that stuns the senses with rapid-fire camera work and empties the soul of all possibility. Certainly the “thing without feathers” that poet Emily Dickinson wrote of cannot be found here; instead, Aronofsky drags us to the bottom and leaves us there, numb and disoriented and fumbling blindly for some kind of exit.

But for those who can stomach this kind of bleakness, all these qualities are what make “Requiem for a Dream” a true work of art. It is the creation of a major new talent absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision in order to pacify anyone, including the MPAA. Aronofsky refused to change or excise any part of “Requiem for a Dream” even after the organization slapped the film with an NC-17 rating. He was right to stand firm; each scene is necessary to build the slow-then-all-at-once momentum, which has the feel of that inevitable slide from casual drug use to full-blown addiction.

That slide is the same and it is different from every character in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” There is Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), whose only ambition in life is to snort or shoot smack with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). For Harry’s lonely, frumpish mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), it’s a combination of uppers and downers that does her in. Her addiction is, perhaps, the most tragic because it is accidental. She mistakenly believes a telemarketing call will land her a spot on her favorite television show (hosted by Christopher McDonald, all phony, creepy smiles here) and thinks diet pills will slim her back into her favorite red dress. Early in their addictions, each has dreams that seem simple enough and completely attainable: Harry wants to earn enough money to help Marion her own dress store, Tyrone wants financial security and Sara wants to recapture happier times by losing weight and impressing her friends on television.

What Aronofsky drives home with relentless force is the way hard-core addiction blunts individuality, reducing every addict’s life to the same schedule: get high, come down, look for the means to get high again. Sara, Harry, Tyrone, Marion — the how or why any of them started doesn’t matter because their lives, at the end, are headed down the same spiral. Rather than depend solely on his actors to communicate this stomach-churning downshift, Aronofsky uses the camera. The characters appear on split-screen early on. Later, the director uses quick scenes of repetition: powder-into-spoon-into-syringe-into-veins, or pill-in-hand-then-mouth, followed by pupil dilation, sighs. Then the process becomes more rapid and appears more often, signaling the deepening of addiction. Aronofsky also makes unnerving use of extreme close-ups, most notably in a shaky scene where Tyrone, spattered with blood from a deal gone bad, flees the police. Even more disturbing is the close-up we get of Sara’s jittery face during her return visit to the doctor who prescribed her uppers, where it’s clear she’s losing her grip on reality and he can’t be bothered to notice. Backed by Clint Mansell’s wrenching score, these techniques are as disturbing as they are effective.

Perhaps more unsettling are the actors themselves, who elevate the term “dedication” to a new level. Each scene requires them to dig lower into depravity than the one before, and yet none of them recoil in the slightest. Wayans, never accused of being a particularly gifted actor, plays it low-key as the mostly-levelheaded Tyrone, while Jared Leto perfects the brand of bruised soulfulness he created for “My So-Called Life.” Always a painfully open actress, Connelly goes further than ever before, baring body and soul; her Marion is a walking, festering wound. Ultimately, Burstyn leaves the most and damaging impression. By the end, Sara has hit lows no human being should ever, ever see. Pills have taken her so far into her own head that she can’t process the living world. It is her face we see in the end, and it is her dead eyes that tell us drugs take us to places we can’t come back from.

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