CINEMA SIGNALS
. "Requiem For a Dream"

I don't recall human devastation being depicted so hopelessly since some of the Russian gulag pictures of the fifties and sixties. The mood it leaves you with is to go shopping for a razor blade to slash your wrists, so gloomy is the outlook for the human condition it describes.

Thankfully, we're concerned here with only one part of the American experience: the drug culture. That leaves those of us who won't touch it with an American flagpole a much warmer and promising future than any of the characters that inhabit this movie. In fact, the best use to which this movie can be put is to make it required viewing in all rehab programs from coast to coast. If this film doesn't convince a drug addict to abandon their habit, no outside influence can be expected to. Pure and simply, this is "Requiem For a Nightmare".

Based on a novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. who co-wrote the screenplay (which is probably one reason why it's a story with little compromise for the faint of heart audience) we meet Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and buddy Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans), minor drug addicts who come up with the brilliant idea that the only way to keep their supply going is to set themselves up in business as dealers.

As luck and influence will have it, Harry's girlfriend Marion Silver (the exotic, under-exposed Jennifer Connelly) goes with the program and is soon addicted along with the boys. Meanwhile, Sara Goldfarb, Harry's mom (Ellen Burstyn in a role with an eye toward an award), who is addicted to her TV giveaway show, receives a phone call informing her that she's to be a contestant. Recognizing the need, therefore, to slim down, she sees a doctor who prescribes a regimen of diet pills to which she's soon addicted. Her eventual withdrawal is as tortured as anything seen in a gulag. Shades of Dostoevsky!

Harry and Tyrone are successes as drug suppliers and soon have shoe boxes full of cash, promising a bright future for Harry's crew. But, as Harry is being given a promotion to a higher level by his supplier, things take a bad turn, ending in the loss of his arm to a monster gangrenous infection caused by his needle. It's pitiable, if you have pity for those who choose the needle. It's also an extreme portrayal of the fate of some addicts.

All this is told with considerable style by director Darren Aronofsky whose first film (this is his second) was "Pi" which I found mostly unintelligible. This one is intelligible but it's clear he has a gift for the uncompromising rendering of his subject matter. He portrays addictive imagery harshly and freakily, getting very close to the limits of what you can get away with in a plausible context. Refrigerators and other objects move no less threateningly than they might in a Stephen King movie.

The effects, occupying a large part of the total footage of this film, is used to portray drug tripping but it ventures into directorial addiction as well and, therein, lies the problem. This is not a film that is likely to have a wide audience. Aronofsky seems to be saying, "I don't care about boxoffice, I insist on opening the curtain into the minds of hopelessly hooked junkies". Good for him, but that will leave a large component of the potential market on their couches and not on the pop corn line.

Ellen Burstyn's performance is likely to be what induces the most Hollywood buzz. It's extreme, all right, and in that there's likely to be some sentiment for this old pro to get award recognition. Her Sara Goldfarb is as crazed as any street junkie, exploring a context that only the most adventurous actor dares dig their teeth, minds and bodies into the way she does here. But, is it too much? Is she undermined by the maelstrom of cuts, angles and effects? My expectation is that if the category of Best Actress isn't overly subscribed (by 5 actresses that the Academy actors deem better) she's good for a nomination. I'd bet against the award, however, on the basis of the in-your-face, over-the-top effort that's part of it.

Jennifer Connelly won't get a nomination but is she ever a presence! Her story is very much the tragedy of drugs as, despite extraordinary beauty, savvy and loyalty, she goes down. I was dazzled by her Emma Murchoch/Anna character in "Dark City" and became hooked on her exquisitely dark eyes and conveyance of nuanced mystery. Let's hope for another fix very soon-- something more substantial than a thanklessly ensemble role in the new TV series, "The $treet". Come on, you producer/directors, this is as unique a film star as you'll find!

Rated D, for Debasement.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  



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