The most striking thing about Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, Pi, was not its sci-fi-for-mathematicians gimmick, but its aesthetic. Here was a low-budget filmmaker who gave the impression that not only did he not want millions of dollars from Uncle Weinstein, but he had no use for production values. As I write this, he’s just been tapped by Warner Bros. for the Batman franchise, but never mind. His first feature showed a dedication to the celluloid image that made me eager to see what his next step would be.
As it turns out, he’s decided to adapt Hubert Selby Jr., best-known as the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which figures. Pi itself was about a kind of delusional obsession, if not an addiction per se, and Requiem for a Dream is an outright horrific addiction yarn. In Aronofsky’s hands it springs to demonic visual life, its reference points being German expressionism, shock cinema, and the great American tradition of the loser. Have you heard “Just One Fix” by Ministry? That’s sort of the musical equivalent of what happens here.
The opening line of Selby’s novel goes, “Harry locked his mother in the closet,” and that’s exactly what we see on-screen, with lanky Jared Leto playing the bad son and Ellen Burstyn seen in close-up as Mom, peering out into the room. Harry periodically steals mom’s TV and pawns it to feed his junk habit, and then she pays to get it back. Harry’s her only son, and she wants badly to be proud of him. And Harry does want to make her proud — working with his buddy Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), he starts socking away the proceeds of drug sales with an eye to building a better life for himself and his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly).
Mom has a dream, too. She’s a dedicated viewer of a dreadful serial infomercial urging viewers to cut out the red meat and refined sugar and “Be! Excited! Be! Be! Excited!” about life, and she becomes obsessed with appearing on the program. Determined to wear a cherished red dress that she’s long since outgrown, and unsuccessful with a boiled-egg-and-grapefruit dining regimen, she gets a prescription for diet pills. And thus the downward spiral begins.
Aronofsky directs with an iron fist. Every camera placement, every choice of lens and film stock, every overpowering sound effect reinforces the general sense of doom. The edits are similarly stylized, with each fix signified by a quick, almost musical montage — cigarette lighter, syringe, blood vessels, pupil dilating, like that — that’s a clever way to get around the obligatory needle scenes. Scenes of dope-pushing are handled with similar elan. Intertitles fall onto the screen from above, and are accompanied by a thundering crash on the soundtrack. Such un-subtleties are balanced out by Aronofsky’s knack with the more affecting stuff. In a scene where two lovers share idle pillow talk, he uses montage within a split-screen image so delicately that you wonder why nobody else other than style maven Brian De Palma employs the technique anymore. Gazes meet across the compacted space, fingers touch skin in close-up — the effect is sheerly musical, and it made my heart beat a little faster.
The performances he gets are uniformly marvelous. Leto’s Harry is a sleek hipster whose transformation from charming loser into accursed junkie is startling and credible, and Connelly, more striking than ever, conveys the internalized trauma of someone who keeps her head up even as she forces herself to crawl through shit. Burstyn, meanwhile, is almost unrecognizable and completely unselfconscious in the pivotal role. Her scenes, portraying an ordinary woman obsessed with things that people really are obsessed with — food, television, loneliness — are the film’s most indelible.
At some point, it occurred to me that the last American film that filled me with this kind of rage, sadness, and near-nausea may have been Eraserhead. I don’t make that comparison lightly, and I consider it a great compliment to Aronofsky’s single-mindedness. However, the more overtly horror-show elements (they include an amputation, electro-shock therapy, and a double-ended dildo) eventually wore me down; increasingly, Requiem for a Dream feels like a cudgel. This may be, simply, the most effective anti-drug propaganda movie in history. Yep, the relentlessness of the overall visual strategy is unparalleled. Yep, Ellen Burstyn deserves an Oscar. Yep, Darren Aronofsky is some kind of genius. And no, I won’t give the film an “A” — because I never want to see the goddamned thing again.