Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald
Previously there has been only one attempt to transfer Hubert Selby Jr.’s raw, unflinching prose to film, Uli Edel’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989). The author’s 1964 debut novel (banned in Italy and prosecuted for obscenity in Great Britain in 1967) made a decent transition, the gritty, blue collar streets inspired by Selby’s 1950’s youth realised at the slight sacrifice of some narrative tropes. Poor distribution condemned it to a limited theatrical run. 11 years later and Requiem For A Dream met a similar fate, courtesy of a unnecessary NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Artisan chose to release it unrated.
Aronofsky’s sophomore effort, co-written with Selby and adapted from his 1978 novel of the same name, could so easily be categorized as “another drug movie”, but to see it in solely this context demeans what is a mature piece on modern day addiction at large, and its destruction of aspirations. Set in Coney Island, the film charts the trajectory of Harry Goldfarb (Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Connelly) and best friend Tyrone (Wayans) on the downward spiral of drug abuse. An acute comparison is drawn through Harry’s widowed mother Sara (Burstyn, remarkable) and her misplaced faith in prescription drugs to lose weight for Tappy Tippon’s (McDonald) trashy self help chat show which she longs to appear on.
The latter narrative thread lends significant weight to the overall argument, best illustrated in the scene where Harry recognizes Sara’s use of uppers and downers which she dismisses as a problem. Their legal nature and social acceptability shield her from the truth, give her hope and keep the unobtainable alive, in this case the preoccupation and obsession concerning body size and the pursuit of celebrity, themselves addictions of the modern condition. Harry and Tyrone’s deluded ambition to become dealers and Marion’s desire to move into fashion are equally flawed, Aronofsky making no differentiation between legal and illegal, addiction being simply one and the same, a plug to forget deeper psychological scars with no Trainspotting (1996)“Choose Life” denouement possible for these lost souls.
Charges of style over substance were somewhat unfairly levelled by some on the films release. Over 2000 cuts are used throughout, double that of a normal film, but the overall tone stylistically compliments the frenzied see-saw lifestyle of the protagonists. Long shots and time lapse photography capture a mundane, grey normality followed by short, sharp montages as a substance is ingested (in an absorbing commentary Aronofsky highlights MTV Hip Hop videos as an influence for this) and rigid close ups as effects fade and paranoia and disillusionment set in.
The climax of the film, the primary reason the MPAA granted the aforementioned rating, pushes these stylistic boundaries further to a relentlessly punishing extent. Claustrophobia and disorientation are evoked as the camera cuts in tight to an individual’s face, shaking violently, a technique used in the director’s low budget sci-fi, thriller Pi (1998). A staccato of cross cutting, split screen and piercing sound accompanied by Clint Mansell’s pounding score and the Kronos Quartet (using music from Requiems by Mozart and Verdi) drives on as each of the protagonist’s fates are unveiled. Requiem For A Dream may be an agonizing, unnerving experience, but the combination of technical virtuosity combined with emotional undercurrent marks it out as a unique, visceral and empathetic study of addiction and the human condition.