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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.

10 disturbing movie scenes

There’s a reason I don’t seem many horror movies: I am a wimp.

Now, don’t try to make me feel better. I know the truth, and so does anyone who’s had the misfortune to sit through a scary movie in my presence. I cringe, I cower, I gasp, I glimpse the carnage unfolding onscreen through Vulcan-split hands over my eyes. To this day, I can’t tell you what the characters in “The Ring” looked like. Know why? I took my glasses off 10 minutes in and I never put them back on.

But these sad little details aren’t what form the complete fraidy-cat that is me. It’s the fact that scenes from regular movies — some that don’t fit into the horror genre at all — stick in my brain for all eternity. The bit from “Spun,” with the hooker staying tied up, blindfolded, on a bed for days? Can’t hear heavy metal without flashing back to it. The scene in “Arlington Road” where Joan Cusack says the word “shopping” with all the menace of Jeffrey Dahmer snatching Konerak Sinthasomphone from the cops? Still get the wiggins when I hear that term.

So now, since I’ve gotten myself all worked up and jittery, here’s a list of 10 disquieting, troubling and (in some cases) disgusting scenes that my brain cannot forget:

1. Videotaped family slaughter, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” — No single scene in movie history (and in my short time on Earth) has left me as shaken as the grainy, muffled home video footage of Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) gleefully murdering an entire family during a home invasion. It makes us voyeurs, removes that safe “this is just a movie” barrier and makes us participants. In a word: Yikes.

 

 

2. The opening scene of “Wild at Heart” — Ever seen a moment of violence so brutal, so feral and uncontrolled that it makes you violently ill? I have, and it takes place (literally) at the beginning of David Lynch’s soul-deadening “Wild at Heart,” when Nicholas Cage bashes in — with sickening vigor — the head of a man hired to kill him. 

3. The firecracker/handjob scene in “Mysterious Skin” — Oh, the things kids come up with, how mind-blowingly sick they are. A preteen boy and his gal tagalong get the idea to stuff a firecracker inside the mouth of a shy dweeb and set it ablaze. Afterward, he gives the victim a handjob. Thoughtful … and yet horribly, horribly unsettling.

4. The burial sequence in “Blood Simple” — The fear of being buried alive is old as time, and about that universal, too. Place that fear squarely in the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen and you get a prolonged death scene so upsetting you’ll never, ever look at a shovel the same way again.

 

 

5. The chiropractor joke from “Apartment Zero” — When Larry punches Curly in the nose, you laugh. When a sociopathic serial killer (Hart Bochner) breaks a dead woman’s back to stuff her body in a trunk and slings a wisecrack about missing his calling as a professional back cracker? Well, you laugh then too, mostly because you have no idea what to do. And then comes the cringing. A lifetime of it.  

 

 

6. The torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs” — They say memories have an emotional core. I can’t think of a better case-proving point than the stomach-turning, nerve-jangling torture sequence in Tarantino’s classic “Reservoir Dogs.” To this day, the clip, with Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutalizing a bound-and-gagged cop in time to “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and taking pleasure in it — remains the one part of the film I cannot watch.

7. Guy’s revenge in “Swimming with Sharks” — Pushed too far by his screaming movie mogul boss, Guy (Frank Whaley) promptly drops his basket and ends up exacting the kind of physically painful revenge that involves hot sauce, salt and lots and lots of paper cuts. Let your imagination tell you the rest.

 

 

8. The shower scene from “Psycho” — Yes, I realize that this one’s something of a gimme, but facts are facts. There’s a reason this scene is considered a horror classic. Think about it: Where are we at our most vulnerable? That’s the genius of it. Any woman who tells you this scene doesn’t come a’callin’ when she’s showering alone in her apartment is a first-class liar.

 

 

9. The last four minutes of “Requiem for a Dream” — “Requiem for a Dream” qualifies as one of my all-time favorite films, in part, because of the final four minutes, an exercise in dark pessimism that assaults the senses and deadens the soul for weeks — make that years — after the credits roll. Seek not your happy, hopeful ending here, for all you’ll find is a killshot of reality. Gripping stuff.

10. “Chaos” (the whole. blasted. movie) — “There are some things that you see, and you can’t unsee them. Know what I mean?” So said Max California in “8MM,” and if I didn’t know better I’d be convinced his words applied to “Chaos,” a bleak, grim and cheerfully punishing slice of torture porn filled with senseless violence. Things are done that scar the retinas and pervert the mind … things we cannot unsee. And oh, how I wish I could.

What say you, readers? What are your favorite disturbing movie scenes?

Screw the eggnog: Cheerless movies for the Season of Cheer

badsanta

Billy Bob Thornton isn't your average Saint Nick in the delightfully twisted "Bad Santa."

I know that Christmas is the time of good tidings and cheer, of wassailing and sleigh rides, of snowman building and eggnog, tree trimming and family togetherness and overall spectacularly warm-hearted merrymaking.

But so help me if I have to hear “Feliz Navidad” one more time I am going to have a meltdown of cataclysmic — no, make that Britney Spears — proportions. I will shave my own head, procure a few random tattoos and then do a press junket where I convince everyone I’m old and boring and, like, a TOTALLY fit guardian for two children.

Yes, you caught me — when it comes to the Season of Cheer, I am something of a grinch, a harbinger of bah humbug apathy. Perhaps I was born without the Christmas spirit, or maybe I had one once but I stopped feeding it, so it wandered away in search of sustenance.

(Don’t worry; I’m not a complete lost cause. A quick viewing of “Elf” or the claymation Rudolph/Abominable Snowman special whips me into a minor Xmas frenzy.)

So this year I figured I would run with this grinch-like spirit in the hopes that a few of you out there share my dilemma. Thus, I offer up a list of anti-Christmas movies — you know, the kind that leave you feeling sick, horribly depressed or dumbfounded and numb. If you’re in the mood to scare off any holiday merriment, play one of these at top volume:

* The Todd Solondz trilogy: “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” “Storytelling” — Nobody makes better soul-killing films than Solondz, and this is the Holy Trinity for his fans. “Dollhouse” offers a brutally honest and painful glimpse at adolescence; “Happiness” is an ensemble drama about everyday people trying (and failing miserably) to find joy; and “Storytelling” offers up two cringe-with-laughter vignettes, one involving something resembling a professor/student date rape and the other about a family who learns too late what happens when you mistreat the hired help. My advice? Don’t watch all three in rapid succession unless you have a hearty supply of uppers — or at least a few dozen SSRIs — within arm’s reach.

* “Bad Santa” — OK, OK, you caught me. I threw in a Christmas movie, but only because “Bad Santa” gets my lusty, wholehearted vote for its gleeful and unapologetic lack of anything resembling warmth or Christmas cheer. Billy Bob Thornton delivers a dementedly clever performance as Willie T. Soke, a grumbling, last-stage alcoholic safecracker who poses as Santa to get access to store safes and rob them. “Miracle on 34th Street”? Please. Give me a movie about a Santa who gives plastic reindeer a beatdown and spends his lunch breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing room any day.

* “The Pledge” — Somehow this bone-chilling, taut little thriller starring Jack Nicholson as a detective hunting a serial killer and Robin Wright Penn as a harried single mom slipped under everyone’s radar in 2001. No matter — those who saw it (including, of course, yours truly) never forgot the ominous tone and the make-your-skin-crawl final act. This film serves up the kind of resolution that’s twice as unnerving as it is comforting. Bonus: Benicio del Toro turns in a cameo that will haunt your dreams. Believe it.

* “Apartment Zero” — Here’s yet another first-rate pitch-black number very few people saw (to be fair, I found out about it through a fellow film buff). Set in the volatile political climate of 1980s Buenos Aires, this one stars Colin Firth as a nervous, antisocial theater owner who befriends a charismatic sociopath (Hart Bochner, who should have become wildly famous) who may be a ruthless hitman. The humor is so bracingly black it draws more nervous chuckles than laughter, and the final scene will freeze your blood. Prepare to lose some sleep.

* “House of Sand and Fog” — This quiet film plays out, scene for scene, like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps a grim retelling (or retooling) of what we consider the American Dream. Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley are note perfect as a recovering alcoholic who loses her house to a red-tape snafu and the determined immigrant who purchases it, free and clear, in an auction. The intersection of these two lives initiates pure chaos, sending both characters steamrolling toward an end so bleak it will have you reeling for weeks (trust me). Be careful with this one.

* “Mystic River” — As a director, Clint Eastwood has created near-flawless films that peek into the dark hearts of mankind. Apart from “Unforgiven,” it doesn’t get much darker or more disturbing than this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime thriller. The performances are astounding; in particular, watch Tim Robbins shrink himself inside and out to play Dave, a man whose demons are slowly and stealthily eating him alive. Sean Penn, too, is unforgettable as an ex-con hungry to avenge his teen-age daughter’s murder — and it’s that revenge that sets off a chain reaction of grim events that lead to soul-deadening conclusion.

* “Requiem for a Dream” — This adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s dismal novel takes the top spot in this list because, quite simply, I have never — and probably will never — see another film that presents such an unrelentingly bleak (but realistic) view of drug addiction. Observe the addicts in question: There’s Sara (Ellen Burstyn, who was ROBBED of the Oscar by Julia Roberts), an overweight retiree hooked on speedy diet pills who watches as her son, Harry (Jared Leto), hocks her possessions for smack money. His friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are smackheads, too, and before long every player in this drama realizes the particularly cruel paradox of addiction: When you can stop, you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t. Here’s a film guaranteed to leave you awestruck and, at the same time, completely, utterly numb.

*** HONORABLE MENTIONS ***

Thanks to some prodding by a reader (I won’t name names; you know who you are), I realized there was at least one movie I left off this list. Maybe that’s because I forgot it, but I suspect it might be because the movie was so wholly disturbing I’d blocked it from recent memory.

* “Mysterious Skin,” “Manic” — Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how far ye have come since “Third Rock from the Sun.” This former alien has blossomed into a first-rate dramatic actor, and these two films attest to that undeniable fact. In the first, he capably portrays a troubled teen who’d prefer to bury memories of a childhood trauma with RSEs (Random Sexual Encounters); in the second, JGL is downright frightening as a high school student with an anger management problem that lands him in the local psych ward. Don’t expect mindless happy endings; here are two indies that leave you with that sinking feeling (or is it nausea?) in your gut.

* “O” — Shakespeare buffs, please prepare yourself by putting away your quill pens; I warn you that you will not like what you are about to read. This powerful movie (shelved because of its controversial nature) gets my vote as the most creative and disturbing recreation of a Shakespearean play. Based loosely on “Othello,” this drama — set in a modern-day private Southern high school — does the Bard proud by digging deep into the issues that made his play so timeless: jealousy, greed, need for acceptance, trust, deception. The body count alone is unsettling, but it’s each character’s personal dissintegration (particularly Odin as played by Mekhi Phifer) that makes your head spin.

* “Heavenly Creatures” — Forget “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t even mention “King Kong.” Peter Jackson’s spooky project (based on the true story of two New Zealand teens involved in a brutal matricide) remains, in my mind, his definitive work. Thanks to Jackson’s free-wheeling directoral style (he employs creeptastic fantasy scenes) and outstanding acting by then-newcomer Kate Winslet and “Two and a Half Men’s” Melanie Linskey, this is one movie that digs its way into your subconscious and calls it home. If you don’t walk away profoundly disturbed, it’s too late to save you from the psychotic break that looms in your future.