Furious Visual Swirl Takes Audience Along Burstyn heartbreaking in Aronofsky's `Requiem'
By Bob Graham
Everyone who matters in ``Requiem for a Dream'' is addicted to something -- chocolate, television, diet pills, heroin, you name it.
Director Darren Aronofsky, fortunately, is addicted to images.
He has put together a phantasmagoria of self-destructive obsession that is so visually astounding it becomes its own saving grace. Otherwise, we might not be able to bear it.
``Requiem for a Dream'' was initially rated NC-17 by the MPAA, but Artisan Entertainment is releasing it without a rating, which will reduce the number of theaters that will show it. Nonetheless, no one under 17 is supposed to be admitted.
This unrelenting film presents some of the most wrenching images conceivable, yet never for a single moment is there anything exploitive about them. Aronofsky's artistry extends to compassion for the self-deluded, doomed characters.
Sara Goldfarb is a lonely woman who has a junkie son and whose closest relationship is with the television set and the host of a bizarre show she watches.
She is played by veteran actress Ellen Burstyn (``The Exorcist''), whose grueling, vulnerable performance exists in a place beyond praise. The entire cast is extraordinary. Jared Leto is Sara's wraithlike son, Jennifer Connelly his would-be-designer girlfriend and Marlon Wayans his drug-dealing buddy.
SCARY DRUG SEQUENCES
There is no doubt of Aronofsky's talent -- he made the Sundance winner ``Pi'' three years ago with very few resources but his imagination. The new film takes place on his home turf and that of co-writer Hubert Selby Jr.: the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn near Coney Island. Selby, author of ``Last Exit to Brooklyn'' and the book on which this film is based, is the novelist of harrowing dead ends.
Feverish hallucinatory moments and shocking ``prequel'' flashes of a character's imagination are only the beginning of Aronofsky's visual repertory. He finds a way to make a scream of despair visible.
Other screams will make the screen rattle. He splits the screen, horizontally and vertically, and -- addictively -- repeats flashing close-ups of pill-popping, snorting and shooting up. The dreamy effects of the drugs circle upward. Their less-dreamy effects make refrigerators throb, and the screen distorts. The camera moves relentlessly across an apartment as the figure within frantically jumps and darts.
Burstyn's performance plumbs the depths of understanding, all the more remarkable because the sweet character she is playing does not begin to comprehend the depths of the trap in which she is caught. Sara Goldfarb's addictions seem simple enough to begin with: chocolate and TV.
STARTS OUT FUNNY
``Requiem for a Dream'' starts almost as a comedy. Sara desperately wants to lose 50 pounds so she can squeeze into an old red dress and appear as a contestant on her favorite TV program, ``The Tappy Tibbons Show,'' which seems to be some weird sort of feel-good self-improvement show (``No refined sugar'' is one of its mantras).
There are signs Sara may be cracking up before she gets hooked on diet pills -- the telephone call that informs her she has been selected as a contestant may be delusional. Listen carefully. The first sign of her dependence on the pills -- speed, apparently -- is a slight grinding of the teeth.
Sara wants to be on the show because she wants to be somebody. Millions of people will see her and like her.
Perhaps the most unforgettable scene is the invasion of the lonely woman's room by the maniacally beaming TV personality Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald). He is creepy in his enthusiasm -- ``We've got a winner,'' he exclaims. ``She's a beautiful woman with a winning smile.'' He is accompanied by the delusional image of Sara's younger self on the program -- horizontal video lines and all, as the crazily chanting studio audience repeats her name. It is a harrowing image of hallucinatory dementia.
To a junkie, everybody else seems to be a junkie, too. ``I finally asked myself `What's her fix?' ,'' says her son, Harry. ``She's a TV junkie,'' and so he buys her the biggest set he can find with his drug-dealing income.
Connelly (``Waking the Dead'', TV's ``The Street'') signals the girlfriend's own -- druggie downward spiral when she starts putting on makeup for assignations as a prostitute.
Harry and Tyrone (Wayans), unlike hard-core pros, sample their product. Their scariest connection is a deaf hoodlum who makes threats in sign language. As they become more disoriented, they take off in a car and can't remember whether they're heading for California or Florida. Memories also figure in the junkie flights of fantasy. One of the most powerful may be of Tyrone as a child running up flights of stairs into his mother's arms.
Novelist Selby himself makes a brief appearance near the end of the film. He is the one saying, ``You've got a rotten attitude.''
-- Advisory: This film contains nudity, drug use and violence...