• Pages

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 42 other followers

  • Top Posts

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.

Review: “Reservation Road” (2007)

reservation_roadBy all rights, Terry George’s “Reservation Road” should be a 2 a.m. Lifetime Television weeper. All the trappings are there — a freak car accident that turns into an unsolved hit-and-run case; a grieving father who sees closure only in revenge; a driver whose sanity is buckling under the weight of what he’s scrambled to cover up — just waiting to be exploited shamelessly. But here’s the real shocker: That … never … happens. “Reservation Road” is no crudely simplified fable with a villain and a hero and a gift-wrapped ending; it’s not that kind of movie. No, what happens here is complex, delicate and deliberate. Don’t expect to walk away unshaken. 

Of course, part of what makes “Reservation Road” so compelling is the (admittedly) hokey-sounding crisis at its center: Driving home from a late Red Sox game with his son, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) veers off the highway and rams into a child on the roadside at a gas station, killing the 10-year-old boy while his father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) watches, too shocked to remember the car or the driver’s face. Dwight, without quite knowing what he’s doing, drives away, leaving Ethan, his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter with a dead body and no answers.

All of this happens very early, and there’s a reason for those emotionally punishing first 10 minutes: These events provide a framework for the rest of “Reservation Road,” which grows more unsettling each minute. The pile of coincidences is a stretch — or is it? In a small town, is it so hard to believe that the victim and the criminal might know each other? Have kids in the same school? Maybe George pushes this angle a bit too hard, makes it a bit too unsubtle, but perhaps this is necessary to pull us in. After all, nothing about this film is easy because “Reservation Road” splits us right down the center, forces us t0 see humanity in the criminal (a divorced dad afraid to lose partial custody of his son), demons in the wronged man (whose grief takes him to an ugly place). To identify with one man is to identify with the other. Phoenix and Ruffalo’s gut-wrenching performances ensure this much.

Oh, and speaking of the performances: Many argue that the faceoff of 2007 was DiCaprio/Damon in “The Departed.” Hardly. What Phoenix and Ruffalo do in “Reservation Road” lays waste to that claim. These two pour themselves into roles that require a frightening amount of emotional energy. Phoenix, who specializes in surly intensity, shows how close resignation can be to blind rage. He takes Ethan’s sadness to a place no one can touch, not even his wife (Connelly, who’s more nakedly emotional than ever). “How do I get you back?” she asks. Damned if Ethan knows, either, and Phoenix makes this internal confusion hard to watch but impossible to ignore. Unglued, too, is Ruffalo’s Dwight, whose decision to leave the scene sticks in his subconscious like a hunting knife in the gut. He can’t shake the guilt. Credit must go to Ruffalo, one of the finest actors out there, for not reducing Dwight to weepy, drunken heap. Ruffalo is too smart, too intuitive an actor to make that mistake. Instead he gives us a man who is slowly unravelling, who knows more with each day that he did much more than kill a child: he killed himself.

And so “Reservation Road” leave us with a whole mess of unanswered questions. Dwight takes a life, reacts badly and suffers dearly for it. But does he suffer enough? Can he ever suffer enough? Does he deserve to die? Would his death give Ethan the kind of closure he wants and needs? Don’t expect an eleventh-hour hug, a Kleenex or a cheat sheet. “Reservation Road” offers no comfort and no answers … which, in an odd way, makes the film something of a miracle. 

Grade: A-