Back in the days of Y2K, Darren Aronofsky had two choices. He could jump from Pi to the big leagues with Batman, or he could adapt and film Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream with the writer himself. Most would have chosen the former and skyrocketed to fame or infamous nipples. Aronofsky, on the other hand, chose the latter and crafted one of the most harrowing dramas to hit the screen, and certainly the most challenging and worthy film on addiction, even if it exists outside the realms of mainstream love.
At its simplest, the film is the story of four good people whose lives are destroyed by addiction. But rather than offer a catchy Trainspotting look at drug use, or make his characters so loathsome that we don't care what happens to them, Aronofsky makes us feel the experience on every level. He pulls us into the world of addiction as almost active participants, before emotionally slamming us with the reality that no matter what the intent, no matter who is targeted, despair will come.
Drugs are not relegated to a certain type of person, group, or background. Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is the girl born into financial security, who is monetarily supported by her family, but feels alienated and alone. Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is plagued by his happy memories of boyhood with his mother, and is desperate to make the mom of his memories proud. Harry (Jared Leto) is the child of loved, but modest, means who can't seem to escape his bad choices. Finally, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is Harry's mother and the emotional heart of the story, a widow who desperately misses her husband and wishes that her son would get on the straight-and-narrow and have a family to to make her proud and ease her loneliness. Through the intermingling of these stories, it's abundantly clear that addiction might derive from bad choices, but not necessarily bad people.
And it's not only in the characters that Aronofsky subverts our expectations. Even in casting the roles, he plays by his own rules. Just think back to the late '90s. Imagine if the Internet was already a sea of movie blogs, and this news hit: a heavy, drug-centric drama was coming to the big screen by a relatively unknown director, with the lady from The Exorcist, Jordan Catalano, cute girl from Labyrinth and Career Opportunities, and to top it all off, one of the goofy Wayans Brothers. We would, quite simply, scoff at the very notion that this could be good.
Add to that the knowledge that the film would be filled with stylish cuts, quick editing, and cinematic gimmicks, and it would sound like a matter of style over substance. But instead of appearing over-the-top, the viewer is pulled in. The quick cuts of prepping and snorting/shooting the heroin offer a sense of immediacy and repetition. When Sara grabs that remote over and over, it's like her cigarette, her repetitive security blanket. But most of all, when the steadicam follows Marion to the rain outside, Tyrone as he runs from violence, we're there, shaking, scared, and more in the middle of the action than we'd ever be with vibrating seats and 3D. These moments are never gratuitous. They're never included simply to be flashy. They just fling out of the screen like a lasso and pull you in and physically feel the journey these doomed people take.
And if the technique doesn't work, there's always the Kronos Quartet to add a layer of superglue to that lasso. Whether you've seen the film or not, you know the score. Hollywood and the marketing machine was just as mesmerized as the audience was by "Lux Aeterna." It's made its way to movie trailers such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, to video game trailers like Final Fantasy, to cheesy beer ads and other marketing. But remarkably, even at this point of Lux Oversaturation, hearing the Kronos in the film is like hearing a score naturally produced in the air around the story that's unfolding.
When I watched the film again this week, I was eager to see how it would impact me ten years later, because as anyone who's seen the film knows, it's the sort of feature that leaves a mark, that renders its viewers quiet, pensive, and at least temporarily, damaged. The friends who watched it with me years ago were rendered catatonic, sitting silently as the credits rolled and the lights went up. But it always hit me differently. Watching the film then, I was emotionally hit, but afterward, I was fueled and inspired by the artistry. I wondered if it would be that way now, as someone older, who writes about movies for a living and expects a lot more from each feature.
But again, Requiem for a Dream impacted me exactly as it had the many times I watched it years ago. It started easily enough before the tension started to build, pounding out of the television over and over, until just when you can't take any more, it ends. I knew what was going to happen. I watched ready to pick out flaws and be overly critical, but just like that first time, it pummeled me. ...How about you?
- How did/does the film affect you? If you've dared to see it more than once, has multiple viewings changed your opinion?
- The film was given an NC 17 rating. Was that fair?
- Did Aronofsky sell you on the film's flairs? The quick cuts, dilated pupils, and pounding music?
- Is there room for optimism in the story? Or, is the despair at the end all that these characters have to look forward to?
- Discuss the film's performance at the Academy Awards -- one nomination for Ellen Burstyn, who lost to Julia Roberts, and no nods for director, writing, score, etc.
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Last Week's Film: Manhattan