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With: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, Louise Lasser, Keith David, Dylan Baker, Sean Gullette
Written by: Darren Aronofsky, Hubert Selby Jr., based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr.
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
MPAA Rating: R for intense depiction of drug addiction, graphic sexuality, strong language and some violence
Running Time: 102
Date: 05/13/2000

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Uppers and Downers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

You will have to decide where you stand. Do you love cinema enough to want to see an exciting, groundbreaking, and astonishing new film, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream? Or are you unwilling to put yourself through what is undeniably a profoundly disturbing experience?

I am in the former camp, though I realize that our number is few. Most people would rather sit through the dull nothingness of Meet the Parents than cross over into new realms. I think Requiem for a Dream is a great movie, and the few of us who see it will be acutely affected.

Writer/director Aronofsky last brought us the ingenious low-budget Pi (1998) about a mathematician looking for patterns in the stock market. The film had a powerful signature look to it, from rapid-fire montage editing to dizzying shots with the camera strapped to the actor's chest. Aronofsky continues this look with Requiem for a Dream, and whatever budget limitations Pi had are now gone. He has emerged as a full-fledged auteur with only his second film.

Requiem for a Dream was based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. (The Last Exit to Brooklyn), who co-wrote the screenplay with Aronofsky. It's the story of four junkies in New York City and their simultaneous downfall. Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) are a couple of small-time junkies who get an idea to become dealers themselves. Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is Harry's girl, who slowly gets hooked on their product. Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is Harry's mother who gets a call telling her she's won a contest and will appear on television. She becomes obsessed with losing weight to fit into an old red dress and becomes hooked on diet pills. These four fall so far so gruesomely that other movie junkies of the past begin to look like Disney cartoon characters.

Aronofsky doesn't bother with long, loving close-ups of heroin injections (as in Pulp Fiction) or snorting of coke. Instead, he gives us a jackhammer montage to show such things (also used in Pi when the mathematician pops his pain pills). He incorporates a few other cinematic inventions, some borrowed from the 60's, such as split-screens and fish-eye lenses, and others invented by himself, like his trademark body-cam, in which the actor's face is immobile in the middle of the frame and the picture around them jumps and twitches. Aronofsky is also accomplished in his use of sound, using metallic humming noises to increase tension and sickness. His techno soundtrack (by Clint Mansell), combined with the modern sounds of the Kronos Quartet, brilliantly drains the movie of any potential comfort or sentimentality. (The junkies are also mix-masters who spin vinyl while shooting up.)

Even better, Aronofsky proves that he isn't one of those cold-hearted filmmakers looking for extreme style and has no use for actors. He draws excellent performances out of an unlikely cast. Burstyn has her best role in 25 years, probably since something like The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) (It's certainly better than her worrying, screeching performance in The Exorcist, currently in re-release.) In fact, it may be her best performance. Hers is the most touching character, the one who takes the highest fall. Leto is another Hollywood pretty-boy who shows unexpected depth here, and Wayans an unruly comedian who brings a true gravity to his role. And Connelly (perhaps the most beautiful actress in movies), who has been treated as a second-rate sex symbol over the last ten years, shows a real talent for smallness. She's not one of those Oscar-winners who bark and chew scenery. She makes a scene come alive with her breathtaking naturalness and interest in tiny gestures. Aronofsky even gives a supporting role to Louise Lasser, best known as Woody Allen's girlfriend in Take the Money and Run (1969). Some of his actors from Pi (Sean Gullette & Samia Shoaib) appear in small roles as well.

Most other drug movies are filmed in a straightforward style, sometimes gritty and street-tough (Drugstore Cowboy), sometimes in spinning colors (Less Than Zero). The recent Jesus' Son is a bland example of a drug movie. Requiem for a Dream leaves them all behind. It tosses razor blades and sour milk into the filmmaking mix. It gives you an emotional jump start that makes it the most intense movie I've ever seen. I've been racking my brain for comparisons; it has the shock value of A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Blue Velvet (1986) but makes those movies seem cuddly. It has the guts of something like Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997), Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), or Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone (1998).

Make no mistake, though. You will see things in Requiem for a Dream that will seriously upset you and give you night sweats. I actually had to cover my eyes during one scene, something I haven't done since I was 8 years old. Do I think it's worth it? Absolutely.

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