Requiem For A Dream
In 1998 the young writer-director Darren Aronofsky burst onto the filmmaking scene with a stunning little feature called "Pi." Shot in high-contrast black and white, the film was about an obsessed young mathematician, paranoid behind many locks in his tenement building in New York's Chinatown, who's built an array of computers that will help him see a pattern in the movements of the stock market. And he's not the only obsessive. He's pursued by a stockbroker who wants his results, and by a cabal of orthodox Jews who think he's found the secret name of God in the Kabbala. And of course the most obsessive of all is Daronofsky himself, who made this film as a way of dealing with the nature of film itself: how the emulsion has a love affair with light; how putting two pieces of film together makes something greater than the sum of its parts; how black and white are, sometimes, all you need to work with, to say everything that can be said.
"Pi" didn't appeal to everyone, but for those of us who've waited anxiously for his next film, and I'm at the head of the line, "Requiem for a Dream" has both fulfilled and failed his promise. "Requiem," from the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., is about a mother and son in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She is Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), a widow, lonely, addicted to a television infomercial show about diets and weight loss. In the course of the film she will find a 'Dr. Feelgood' who gives her the diet pills she craves to lose weight, in order to become a guest on the show. And she'll become addicted to them. Her son Harry (Jared Leto) is a heroin addict, as is his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). Harry and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) decide to make some big money by investing in a shipment of heroin, cutting it and selling it on the street.
The film is the story of the addictions of the four, and what happens to each of them over the course of six or eight months. And what happens is not at all pleasant, either for them or for the audience. Aronofsky has not spared us the details, including the chattering teeth of a speed freak or the shooting up of heroin into an abscessed hole in an arm.
Aronofsky is the most visual of filmmakers, but he shares screenplay credit with Selby, and the old novel keeps intruding with its dated language and awkward clichés in emotional scenes, particularly those between Sara and Harry, where both actors stumble through unnecessary lines that would be better left unsaid, or replaced with more appropriate ones. Selby's novelistic sensibility was formed with his 1964 book "Last Exit to Brooklyn," which even then was subject to some embarrassingly banal scenes and characterizations.
At his best, Aronofsky uses his camera, lights, and editing genius as well as anyone in films today; here his style succeeds half the time -- the half with Leto, Connelly and Wayans -- and then fights against the script and Burstyn for the other half. Burstyn, who is being mentioned as a possible Oscar nominee for this role, has somehow come up with the worst, most mannered, most self-conscious 'New York-Jewish' accent you'll find this side of a midwest college production. Moreover, she 'acts' her addiction, instead of simply being addicted. Leto, who doesn't pretend to a New York accent, does much better as the son whose dreams end up in the needle in his arm. Connelly and Wayans are both fine in roles that though smaller are actually better written. Their work here is thoughtful and understated, which makes their own torments and outcomes even more effective in the film.
Much as I want to praise this film, it seems as though Aronofsky has been matched with the wrong partner here, and their two styles are not compatible. I would hope that his next one will be a more comfortable fit -- for him and for us.