Created on a shoestring budget, Pi demonstrates Darren Aronofsky's talents as one of the more promising visual artists filming today. Requiem for a Dream contains some nice visual moments as well—the trailer provides enough to hook viewers. Unfortunately, the full feature delivers little.
Studios financed Aronofsky for a much larger sum this time without having to hit up his relatives and friends for $50 or so, nor did he have to sneak around deserted New York City subways at 3 AM to shoot brains on the steps. Even more encouraging is the fact that Aronofsky refused to acept a rare NC-17 rating from Jack Valenti and his MPAA board, and Artisan Entertainment backed up Aronofsky's decision by distributing Requiem for a Dream as unrated.
Why not? Pi is first rate creative fare, and Requiem for a Dream received generally good reviews from critics, who frequently comment about how well Aronofsky portrays the mental states of the addicts.
If we accept the premise that junkies are essentially brainless zombies, these critics would be correct. That assumption just doesn't hold water. Although Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, combine for some incredible imagery in Pi that leads its protagonist towards ultimate knowledge, they only lead to superficial MTV style imagery along a pointless journey in Requiem.
Maybe that's part of Aronofsky's point, but it's more likely that he used a larger budget to play with same techniques on a dumber script this time around.
Requiem for a Dream boils down to one simplistic message along the lines of Nancy Reagan's anti-drug campaign of the 1980s—"Just say no!" The film begins with junkie Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) pawning his mother's precious television set for drug money--a scene that has obviously been repeated numerous times.
Harry's widowed Jewish mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), is a lonely woman who lives for her television. There's not much else in her life, so she gets really jazzed after receiving a phone call notifying her that she may be called to be on her favorite quiz show. She excites her neighbors about the prospect, and prepares for her big day.
Ada (Louise Lasser) helps her look younger by dying her hair various shades of orange and red, and suggests her grapefruit diet to help Sara get into her old red dress. That doesn't work fast enough for Sara, so she goes to one of the world's worst doctors and begins a steady diet of speed. The amphetamines help Sara drop 25 pounds rapidly but also lead to incredible hallucinations—the best sequence being a surreal late night visit from her hungry monster refrigerator.
Meanwhile, Harry, his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) all degrade themselves through heroin. Their fixes parallel Sara's TV game show addiction, as each lonely soul can only feel all right about themselves during their drug highs. Identical sequences of nearly subliminal imagery of heroin cooking, a sucking syringe, and dilating pupil repetitiously introduce their drug fixes at least a dozen times during the film. The camera occasionally goes through these trips, but more often shows the three addicts in their bummed out oblivious state.
Harry is about as delusional about achieving success through drugs as his mother is about appearing on her favorite Quiz show. He keeps talking about making one big score that will make everything work out perfectly. While Tyrone seems to understand that Harry isn't operating with a full deck, Marion naively believes him and sleeps with Arnold the shrink (Sean Guillette of Pi fame) to get the money. Of course things fall apart, and each character will be left alone to deal with his/her private Hell.
With the MTV generation growing more important for box office revenue, substance and character development become secondary, as long as there's plenty of visual stimuli—visual rave parties like Natural Born Killers and The Cell. Many Requiem images are pretty to look at, making a wonderful trailer for the film. But it seems that Aronofsky does little more than play with the visual techniques without using them effectively to tell a worthwhile story.
Adding to the rave party atmosphere is the soundtrack. Retains Clint Mansell from Pi to create the music, the Bernard Hermann style violin sounds are not a bad choice, but Aronofsky deliberately turns up the volume to induce ear violence for drug-induced illusions. Unfortunately, the repetitious technique becomes more irritating than illuminating, and make us thankful for silence. If meant to keep the audience awake, it doesn't work.
Although the preachiest scenes paint horrors like a grossly infected arm and a sleazy lesbian sexual orgy, the junkies look like models for a now defunct Sears catalog. Jared Leto appears lean and gaunt enough to be a junkie, but Aronofsky should have used some of that larger budget for facial makeup to make him look more authentic.
Instead of showing the motivations and characters of the young addicts, Aronofsky designs a Magnolia-like parallel structure, relying more on stereotypes without getting inside the characters (except in Burstyn's case). To show the horrors of drug addiction, Aronofsky overdoses with incessant subliminal images to indicate when they get their fixes, scenes that show planning for the next fix, fast cutting horror scenes, and visuals to blatantly show each revert into fetal position near the end to symbolize how pitiful they are.
Requiem for a Dream relies more cheesy symbolism to address drug issues, like the age-old argument about how best to deal with our drug problem—enforce the laws or provide treatment and therapy. Let's see—four addicts, including one African-American. Any surprise which one will get the jail time?
If only screenwriters Hubert Selby Jr. and Aronofsky had developed the three young junkies like Ellyn Burstyn's character, Requiem for a Dream would rank as one of the best films in recent memory. Burstyn provides the only light moments of the film through her naive belief that the junk phone call will turn into the highlight of her life and somehow make everything turn out right. We sense her humanity as her frumpy form attempts to fit into a younger dress, watch her tortured looks during the grapefruit diet, and chuckle at her visit to the quack doctor who quickly prescribes drugs without even looking at his patient.
Burstyn provides the only heartfelt moments of the film when she confesses to her son that the anticipated television appearance gives her a reason to wake up in the morning.
"It's a reason to get up in the morning. It's a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It's a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I'm alone. Your father's gone, you're gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I'm lonely. I'm old."
She truly becomes a real person here, a lonely soul living out her days watching her television quiz show only because her family has left her. Especially telling is the scene where she sits in front of her new television set, realizing that she needs more from her son than this gift.
Burstyn's descent into her Hell is far more believable. She gradually increases her diet pill dosage until her appearance and behavior deteriorate like the junkie ranters riding New York City subways. We end up caring for her as much as her two weeping neighbors by the end. Her Oscar nomination was well-deserved.
The hallucinatory Pi demonstrates Aronofsky's creative visionary talents, and Requiem for a Dream illustrates promise. Many of the scenes are creatively constructed, and Burstyn's character is handled well. Time will tell whether he continues to develop or remains a flash in the pan, briefly fashionable for fancy film school project material.
Many critics praise this effort for its bold journey inside the minds of drug addicts. Most actual drug users sense that Requiem merely skims the surface and won't take it seriously, but the film isn't made for junkies. It's designed for the MTV generation, but its 102-minute running time feels even longer. With some expert editing, they can make an effective 5-minute music video to show on MTV like they did previously with Pi.
Translating Requiem for a Dream into a music video would make a lot more sense than the film does in present form. Just edit in Frances McDormand shouting "Don't use Drugs!" at the end for a public service message.