Droid defines the Decades best movies – #9 Requiem for a Dream (2001)
Through my sheer exhaustive dedication to procrastination, my thunder has once more been stolen by Jarv’s review (found here). His is a good review, and he makes many of the same points that I was going to. So while touching on those briefly, I will try to make this a review that works alongside his one, so as not to repeat and bore you all to tears.
The plot in brief. Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr, ‘Requiem’ follows four characters from Brighton Beach who struggle to better themselves and find meaning in their empty lives through a variety of drugs. Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn). None of these characters have jobs, have far too much time on their hands, and aren’t equipped to handle the tedium of a life without meaning or purpose. For three of them it’s a conscious decision to escape from reality, while for Sara, it comes down to her desire to appear on a television game show, to wear her red dress and relive her last memory of happiness.
This is Darren Aronofsky’s best film thus far. Pi was great, and The Wrestler, while a good film, just felt a little paint by numbers for someone of his talent. The Fountain was a swing and a miss for me, but I have nothing but admiration for that film, because it was one hell of a swing. Here he uses a lot of visual trickery, but it feels organic. The visuals serve a purpose, and are meant to represent something. It’s not just stylized for the sake of it. The speeded up footage when Sara takes the pills for the first time or the flurry of images when anyone takes the drugs are meant to visually represent that act and effect of doing these drugs. And it works.
I want to point out a couple of shots that have stayed with me since first watching it. First is the transition from Summer to Fall (I say transition, but it’s more like Fall slamming in to Summer). When Tyrone escapes the car after the shootout, Aronofsky straps the camera to Wayans and we stare directly into his face as the terrified Tyrone runs for his life. This scene and particularly this shot amazed me when I saw it at the cinema, and after seeing it a number of times since, it still does. It’s a completely unexpected kick in the balls after the rosy and dream like first act. These lives come crashing down to earth with a thud, and it only gets worse from here.
The other shot I want to point out is actually two shots, during the scene when Harry “suggests” that Marion could get some money by sleeping with her shrink (the wonderfully grotesque Sean Gullete, star of ‘Pi’). Throughout the scene Aronofksy has them in a two shot, showing the desperation of Harry as he tries to rationalise with Marion (and himself) why she needs to do it. The first shot is once Marions pleas don’t work, she accepts and understands what price must be paid for her addiction. The look on her face is of a life that was clinging to hope finally dashed. The second shot is immediately after and it’s a two shot of her sitting next to Harry, but Aronofsky has positioned his camera and framed Harry out of view, isolating Marion in her loneliness and despair. It’s a heartbreaking scene.
Which brings me to the acting. Everything Jarv said about these four actors is on the money, so I won’t repeat him. But I don’t think he properly gave enough credit to Burstyn. She is completely and utterly amazing as Sara. Her panic and desperation for something more out of her dreary life is almost impossible to watch. The scene Jarv pointed out, where Harry twigs to his mothers diet pills is one of the most raw and emotional performances I’ve seen. Years of fear and loneliness, and the desperate need for validation from a bunch of old ladies who sit on fold out chairs on the pavement comes flooding out and her monologue is gut-wrenching. “I’m somebody now.” And at the end of the scene when Harry essentially says goodbye to his mother for the last time (he has no intention of bringing Marion over for dinner), it’s him giving up on her. He’s not strong enough to save himself, let alone someone else. Hers is a powerful performance and while I don’t want to harp on it, the fact that Julia Roberts beat her for Best Actress is one of the biggest injustices in the history of the Oscars. Not that we care about such things. I just hate that they gave it to the Cheshire Cat for an annoying performance in a shit film.
In the end, the destruction of these characters is not a pleasant experience. But it’s an important one. If I ever have kids (that I know of), around their early to mid teens I’m going to haze them with this film. This is what you get when you dabble with drugs, you little shits. My version of the scared straight program. Jarv pointed out that he suspects that Aronofsky sets up his characters so he can destroy them later. I don’t completely agree. I see the arc of the movie as a representation of the arc of drug abuse. It’s all fun and easy at the start, but by the time you get dependant, bad things start to happen to you. And you either end up in jail, in a nuthouse having electricity jolted directly into your head, bumping ass in front of a braying hoard of neanderthals or qualifying for the Special Olympics. It’s a cautionary tale that’s not just about drugs, but also about pursuing meaning and purpose in your life. None of these characters have it. They have small dreams, but no will to pursue them. Sara lasts on her diet for one day before she goes to the doctor. Harry makes a plan for a store for Marion, and moves are made (we see via photos), but nothing comes of it. These are hopeless characters and their fate, while unjustifiably cruel, is of their own making. Sara we pity most of all because her addiction comes through naiveté as much as any conscious decision.
‘Requiem for a Dream’ is a masterpiece, and would be higher on my list if it weren’t so damn depressing and harrowing. But my love for feelgoodery keeps this at #9. It’s by no means an easy watch, but I revisit it every two or three years. It’s as effective today (after just watching it) as it was the first time I saw it.
The list so far…
#10 – The Descent (2005)