Requiem for a Dream -- Film Review

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky, Runtime: 102 minutes
Grade: A-

Though Darren Aronofsky's Pi might be his freshman film, Requiem for a Dream clearly stands as the catapult for his career. That's not to turn a blind eye to his first work, which more than earns its Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, but to show exactly how essential his sophomore film -- an adaptation of Hubert Selby's novel about drug addiction, also entitled "Requiem for a Dream" -- truly is. As a reflection on the corruption of innocence, it's nearly flawless; however, as a portrait of the dangers of addiction, Requiem for a Dream should not only be celebrated, but deemed a necessary viewing experience.

Structured by season running the course of a year (almost), the plot revolves around four individuals in the New York area dealing with addiction. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) stands as the common link between all the individuals, with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) each with their own types of dependence. The three twenty-somethings get wrapped up with heroin, both as users and dealers looking for a way out of their lives. Sara, on the other hand, endures the effects of a diet pill addiction as she prepares to go on television. They all have their own structured reasons, but it all comes back to one central desire: displacement from the real world.

At the start, Requiem for a Dream portrays the beauty of "flawed perfection" on an impeccable level. The romance between Harry and Marion isn't like a storybook painting, but the tangibility present in their tender connection carries a genuineness that'll appeal to anyone who's been in a true enduring relationship. Mirroring their conjoined enjoyment of life's little joys, Harry's mother Sara also indulges in simple pleasures -- television in her close-quartered apartment, the randomness of selecting chocolate from a box, little things -- all following the death of her husband that left her somewhat without purpose. Watching Harry and Tyrone wheel a television across long expanses of sun-baked New York boardwalks and streets shares a playful purity, even though we know exactly what they're going to do with it.

Aronofsky keeps a firm grasp on the chemistry that's been generated between all his impeccably-chosen actors, a mood that slowly mixes unsullied relationships with gradual splashes of corruption from outside sources. Watching these characters from a point of happiness makes witnessing their deconstruction utterly heartbreaking, yet powerful and touching enough to appeal to a broad range of deep emotional connections that we might have built with them. Like watching poison drop into a mixing bowl, we stand back and observe as chaste ingredients are slowly tainted by unwanted outside components. Each character holds their own strengths and weaknesses, from hopeful elements like Harry's charisma and Tyrone's ambition, to Marion's lack of ability to differentiate between acts of love and acts of counter-production towards the trio's illness. Jennifer Connelly's shift from innocence to darkness as Marion stands out as the second-most pronounced, as we can see it emptying from her disposition from start to finish.

Drawing a parallel between heroin use and Sara's doctor-prescribed diet pills marks the difference between Requiem for a Dream being in-reach with the audience and beyond comprehension to those inexperienced with addiction. Watching Harry's mother buzz around her apartment, popping pills in front of the television, and grow more and more emaciated in a similar fashion as her son reflects the same sort of caustic power behind harmful drug use. Ellen Burstyn's performance, in effect, ties everything together; though we watch the horrors of worst case scenarios with the younger users, it's with Sara's gradual fizzle towards chaos within the confines of her own home -- by means of a flippant doctor's prescription -- that the connection really hits home. Some of the comparisons achieved by Aronofsky between actual brick-and-mortar prison and the prison of Sara's sanity can be downright frightening.

The characters' situations may differ, but their addictions share one thing in common: a driving force to separate themselves from reality. They reveal internal demons to us -- most revolving around a desire to separate themselves from the banality of their substandard lives -- in a fashion that reflects an unappreciative eye for the simple joys in life. That implies that all of the joy we witness in the first part of Requiem for a Dream aren't powerful enough to keep them from plummeting into a world of swelling drug use. Or maybe, it's just that the insurmountable impact of drug dependency is so strong that it'll swallow even the most pure and pleasant of elements. Either way, it shows how quickly that grasp of reality can be lost and how life's little pleasures become invisible to jaded, hungry eyes.

Though heartbreaking to witness, Requiem for a Dream's cinematic style makes this painful deconstruction even more heartfelt and, in many ways, gorgeous to behold. It features a legendary score composed by Clint Mansell, revolving around the infamously haunting musical cue from his "Lux Aeterna" that catapulted his stature as a Hollywood composer. Though it's rare that a piece of music can so aptly reflect both the pinnacle of beauty and the darkest recesses of depression, Mansell's magnum opus score certainly achieves it. Since then, he's pieced together excellent scores for many works -- including a sublime score for Aronofsky's own The Fountain -- but the energy and breathtaking emotion present here is really something to behold.

Probably the most iconic element present in the film is the superb editing work from Jay Rabinowitz, Jim Jarmusch's long-time editor responsible for piecing together Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Dead Man, as he comes together with Aronofsky's vision and Matthew Libatique's cinematography to create something visually astounding. He's driven to task with Requiem for a Dream, combining lightning-fast quips to replicate the feverish process -- and time-consuming nature -- of doing drugs. Incorporating shots of widening and tightening retina, the stilted flow of blood cells through a vein, and the shifts between rapid and sluggish movement by adjustments in the flow between frames is a masterful achievement in pushing film as an artform dangerously close to the replication of real-life experiences. It envelops the audience within a dizzying yet undeniable tornado of beautiful chaos, one where we can barely watch the character's fall -- but can't manage to pull our eyes away in wonder.

To label Requiem for a Dream as merely a cautionary tale is drastically undercutting its potency. It's a potent character film with well-drawn, affective entities that we can't help but empathize with, even when they're spiraling down the darkest of paths. Aronofsky shows familiarity with the structure he's created, building a beautiful arc between splendor and limitless suffering that looks in both directions. The characters look back at a life before they got wrapped up in intravenous drugs, while we -- a broad range of humans with scoring levels of corruption -- look at their downward spiral as a deeply communicated warning. Yes, it's a cautionary tale; but Requiem for a Dream's ability to connect with its audience comes as close visualizing the collapse of friends, family, even one's self, as you're likely to get.

I have no qualms in admitting that Requiem for a Dream succeeds in causing me to shed at least a tear or two upon every viewing. It draws audiences of many different styles to its message, appealing to those curious about the effects of drug use all the way to those who find the blanket of depression hard to remove from their lives. No matter the reason, Requiem for a Dream should become essential viewing to those approaching the age of lost innocence; Aronofsky's film reminds us to grasp a hold of the truly radiant elements in life, while attempting to dodge anything that might consume us. To speak to addiction, temptation, and diligence in trying to find a way out is a tough feat, but Requiem for a Dream -- with its poetic construction and potent allegorical resonance -- does it better than any film I've seen.


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