Wednesday 14 April 2010

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I knew almost nothing about Requiem for a Dream before I watched it in 2004, only that it was a drug film though perhaps that's why I didn't know more. I'm British and pop culture is a powerful thing, so while this is a drug film, Trainspotting was the drug film and, not being into drugs, I hadn't seen that either until this project. Now I've seen both I can say that there really is no comparison between them, other than in the quality of the filmmaking. They have very different tones, speak to very different cultures and take very different approaches. In fact Requiem for a Dream isn't really a drug film at all, at least in the way that most drug films are drug films, made to appeal to a culture that's into that sort of thing. Trainspotting mentions more drugs than I've ever heard of, in lists recited in dialogue, but Requiem for a Dream never mentions any of them by name.

It's an addiction film, a drama about how people attempt to live their dreams but really live their lives, and how they destroy their dreams through addiction and self delusion, and what leaps out most powerfully is the deliberate, surprising but very welcome lack of distinction between drugs. While three of the four lead characters are on heroin, the fourth is on diet pills and television. Director Darren Aronofsky, in an introduction to a new edition of the source novel by Hubert Selby Jr, wrote that he 'began to look at the film as a monster movie. The only difference is that the monster doesn't have physical form. It only lives deep in the characters' heads.' Of course in a monster movie, the hero wins out in the end by finding some way to kill off the monster, and that doesn't happen here because there are no heroes, just a monster.

The surprising character to face this monster is Sara Goldfarb, a widow and mother who spends her days sitting in front of her apartment complex with the other old ladies who live there, all lined up on deckchairs waiting for life to happen to them. When she's inside, she watches infomercials on the TV, annoyingly catchy things like Tappy Tibbons hawking his juice like an evangelist. Actually that's JUICE because it stands for 'Join Us In Creating Excellence', which of course is not what Sara Goldfarb finds on his 'show'. As the film begins, she's being interrupted from it because the only thing she seems to have ever created herself, her son Harry, has come to steal her TV again, even though she's chained it to the radiator and hidden in her bedroom. 'The chain isn't for you,' she tells him, 'it's for the robbers,' but of course he's the robber and she's his accomplice.

This is a routine: Harry and his friend Tyrone steal the TV and wheel it through town to Mr Rabinowitz's store to trade in for money to buy drugs, merely in such a way that enables his mother to easily pick it up again later. That way she isn't paying for his drugs and in fact can even close her eyes as to what he even needs the money for anyway. This self delusion is as much a part of this film as the various drugs and we soon discover what each of the four main characters, the fourth being Harry's girlfriend Marion, want most and how they go about getting it. The title refers to the fact that each of them has an obstacle to overcome that might prevent them from reaching their respective dreams and each of them fails at that obstacle, all the while deluding themselves into believing that they're doing fine. The story arcs through three metaphorical seasons: up during summer, down through autumn and then way down once winter arrives.

The actors are superb, fearlessly reflecting their characters' respective descents into the depths. Ellen Burstyn is most prominent as Sara Goldfarb, because there are two parallel plot strands here and while the other one is shared by three young adults, hers is almost entirely a solo run with only Harry popping in every once in a while to keep the two connected. Burstyn was 67 years old at this point and looks terrible in this film, even at her best. Outside of it, she's an elegant lady who seems to only become more so with age, to the degree that she looked much better eight years later in Lovely, Still than she does here, even though she was 75 at the time. To be fair, she was bulked up with twenty and forty pound padding and wore neck prostheses to make Sara Goldfarb look bigger than she was, but much of the effect is through more traditional make up and Burstyn's own acting.

She was Oscar nominated but lost to Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich, something that has been commented on often by those who rage at Oscar injustices. Then again, Burstyn has had a strange time of it with awards. She's one of those few actors who have won the triple crown: an Oscar (for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), a Tony (for Same Time Next Year) and an Emmy (for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). Among her many other nominations is one for a mere fourteen seconds of screen time, an Emmy nomination for a TV movie called Mrs Harris. 'I thought it was fabulous,' she said, about such a ludicrous concept. 'My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and, ultimately, I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don't even appear.' While she initially rejected this script, horrified by it, she later said that it was her greatest acting achievement. 'Achievement' is certainly the word for it, because it's the sort of thing by which not just the actor responsible but everyone else is judged.

Harry is played by Jared Leto, who had debuted in an Ellen Burstyn film in 1995 called How to Make an American Quilt, though hardly in a major role. In fact Harry Goldfarb may well have been his most prominent role to date, after rising up through the credits over the previous couple of years, from way down in The Thin Red Line and Fight Club to much higher in Girl, Interrupted and American Psycho. He prepared for his role as a heroin addict by losing 28 pounds and abstaining from sugar and sex for a couple of months, something perhaps all the more impressive given that he was engaged to Cameron Diaz at the time. He's a logical choice to put into a movie with Ellen Burstyn, given that beyond their talent, they both have a habit (no pun intended) of taking weighty (again no pun intended) roles that make them look far from attractive. Leto's characters often tend to get very damaged indeed.

Harry's friend Tyrone C Love is Marlon Wayans, a long way from the spoofs he makes with his many brothers like Scary Movie and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, showing that spoofing and acting are not incompatible talents. His was a name I didn't associate with serious material and while his character is the least of the four as far as screen time, he more than lives up to its requirements. While Tyrone takes drugs, he doesn't seem to be particularly affected by them, his descent coming through the business of drugs rather than the taking of them. Marion Silver, Harry's girlfriend, is played by Jennifer Connelly, emphasising to no small degree with this part that she's far from just 'the girl in Labyrinth'. She's not especially prolific but her films are highly varied. She appears in three other Top 250 films and they don't include A Beautiful Mind, which won her an Academy Award.
The script, co-written by director Darren Aronofsky and Hubert Selby Jr, who had written the source novel back in 1978, cleverly separates the two plot strands while emphasising the parallels between them. The one with Harry, Marion and Tyrone is relatively unsurprising and for a while is just about drugs as lifestyle choice. They may be youngsters on heroin but they're building a future for themselves anyway, drifting from being users into being dealers and proving rather good at it. With the proceeds from this risky business, Tyrone plans to make his mother proud by getting off the streets, Marion plans to open a fashion boutique and Harry, well Harry wants to be with Marion. 'You're the most beautiful girl in the world,' he tells her. 'You're my dream.'

Sara's dreams are just as banal. Like all good Jewish mothers, she wants her son to settle down with a nice girl and provide her with grandchildren, at one point even telling him, 'I don't need a present. Just have a baby.' Like most people, she wants everyone to like her, not just the deckchair brigade out front but everyone. Like most people of her generation, she wants to be on television and in fact gets the call to be on an unnamed game show, details and dates to follow later. And to appear on this show so that everyone watching will like her, she wants to be able to get into the red dress she wore to Harry's high school graduation, the proudest day of her life. The catch is that it's a lot smaller than she is so she starts on a diet, soon leaving the diet book and its collection of no's behind and starting on a doctor-prescribed regimen of diet pills.

The fact that these two stories are at once utterly different and yet precisely the same is the biggest success of this film and the one that drew Aronofsky to it. 'The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story,' he admitted, 'but putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, 'Oh my God, what is a drug?' The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person's head when they're trying to quit drugs, as with cigarettes, as when they're trying to not eat food so they can lose twenty pounds, was really fascinating to me.' He aids the comparison by depicting the moments of addiction through rapidly edited montages of images and sound, that make no distinction between hard drugs like heroin and prescription drugs like the mix of amphetamines and sedatives that Sara is prescribed. Even coffee is lumped in here with its own montage, the only comment there being its presence.

The speed of these montages also means that each preparation and consumption of drugs effectively takes a mere second of screen time, leaving us free to watch the ensuing effects. By repetition and through sound being as important in these montages as visuals, they become part of the soundtrack, just as the actions they depict become merely part of the background noise of these characters' lives. Of course they provide a sense of style to proceedings too, which can never hurt in the ADD generation. Most films contain six or seven hundred cuts, but this one features over two thousand of them, getting quicker and quicker as the film runs on, weaving back and forth between the four characters at a faster and faster pace. Add to that a clever use of sped up or slowed down film, to mimic the effect of the drug in use at the time, running faster on uppers and slower on downers, and it's a film that's always fascinating to watch.

As befits a film about addiction, there are hallucination scenes but they're very grounded. When Sara tries out a traditional diet, it doesn't go well: she watches her breakfast disappear in three blinks, the clock moves slower and the fridge jerks nearer and turns transparent. Food appears on the mantelpiece like art and when it begins to float through the air at her she gives in and rings her friend to get the number for the diet pill doctor that helped her daughter lose fifty pounds. In fact Sara hallucinates even more on her legal pills than her son does on hard drugs and she suffers from more cravings. This drug addict son is worried that she'll turn into a dope fiend and tells her so. 'How come you know so much?' she asks him. 'How come you know more than a doctor?' There are levels of irony here and they're not lost. 'Believe me, Ma, I know,' he says.

The film really doesn't take aim at the US healthcare industry specifically but there are scenes here that ring powerfully true. Like so many Americans, Sara has no clue what the pills are that she takes, but she takes them anyway, the prescribed colour at the prescribed time, because her doctor is a nice doctor. It's almost a stereotypical Jewish line, but it's never been countered as effectively as here. When she turns up for her appointment, he just walks into the room, remarks from the notes he's given that she's a little overweight, says he can help and promptly leaves. The two of them are in the same room and they have what could be called a conversation but he doesn't even look at her. Later when she goes back for a further prescription, he grants it in a similarly robotic manner without noticing that she's wildly incoherent. This whole scene unfolds through a fisheye lens making it appear surreal, like something Terry Gilliam might have shot.

Inevitably, of course, things get worse. As summer becomes autumn, things start to fall apart. The money the young dealers save up goes on getting Tyrone out of jail after he's unwittingly caught up in a gangland assassination. Marion raises more by sleeping with her psychiatrist, but they can't get back into business anyway because the supply has dried up on the streets and junkies are getting desperate. Sara finds that her pills aren't having as much effect any more so starts taking more. Her television test signal sounds ominously like a flatline. Yet if all this seems bad enough it's only a hint at where it's going. I could talk about the last half hour but you should go through the shocks yourself. Let me just say that when a lesbian scene with Jennifer Connelly, another girl and a double dildo isn't sexy, you know something is seriously wrong, but that's entirely the point. All four characters end up in places that you don't want to see but you don't want to stop watching.

And here's where this becomes genius filmmaking. It isn't what we expect. It isn't what we think it is. It's a lot of things but it isn't anything until we watch it all the way through, let it sneak into our minds and slam into our faces and coax, cajole and batter us into a number of different reactions. We have to think about it. It helps to come back to it again, a few years later, to experience it all once more. It's a gut punch that refuses to hold back: it's rated R for intense depiction of drug addiction, graphic sexuality, strong language and some violence, but that's just the edited version. Yet it's a sleeper too, full of little quirks and details and nuances, in the editing and the dialogue and the soundtrack. 'How are you,' a nurse asks Sara Goldfarb at one point. 'I'm enormous,' she says, and she's not just talking about her weight. She's talking about this little four and a half million dollar wake up call.


Anonymous said...

This could be the best film I've ever seen that I never want to see again.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

That's a really good description.

I feel the same way about a lot of the English kitchen sink dramas of the sixties, things like Look Back in Anger and This Sporting Life. They're often amazing films in every way but they leave me feeling drained.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

It is a bit odd that so many films that are regarded as masterpieces are films that you watch once and then never watch again where-as a really high number of the films that acheive cult followings (mostly low budget science fiction and horror movies) and that people end up watching 100 times are movies that are usually trashed by the critics, it is rather bizarre.

May - Mayra Hernandez Rios said...

Awesome post about the film