Last Exit to Brooklyn
Requiem Is a Dark Brighton Beach Memoir
No less an authority than William S. Burroughs had a phrase for the spiritual vacuum temporarily filled by self-obliterating drugs: "the algebra of need." The basic idea was, the emptier your life, the more you need things (denial, self-delusion, dope) to fill it, until all that's left is an insatiable hunger for the very commodity that will destroy you. No film in recent memory examines the madness and wasted humanity at the core of such cold equations more unflinchingly than Requiem for a Dream, director Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to his metaphysical sci-fi film Pi.
In the predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, we meet Harry (Jared Leto), a fledgling junkie, and his bereaved, widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a woman in self-imposed exile from the vacuum of her life. Both are in thrall to their dreams. Along with best pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), Harry plans to make a drug deal that'll land them all on Easy Street. At the same time, Sara becomes obsessed with escaping her nowhereland life with an appearance on a TV game show.
Requiem is based on a novel by the king of depressive American letters, Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), so, as should be expected, things go to shit with clockwork precision. By the time Harry, Tyrone, and Marion become full-blown dope fiends, a citywide drug shortage cuts off supplies. Sara, trying to shave off a few pounds/years for her game-show debut, becomes addicted to diet pills and begins to slowly lose her mind.
Aronofsky's obsessive stylistic flash, which often consumed the story in Pi, becomes in Requiem an integral part of his storytelling arsenal. When the film's lost souls take drugs--no substance is cited by name--they do so in a frenzied montage of micro-close-ups of fluids bubbling through tubes, their eyes dilating in time-lapse photography, leading to still shots of the users laid out like newly accepted members of the living dead. (This montage, shown before every shoot-up, could be viewed as repetitive. But then, so is addiction.) Sunny Brighton Beach is filmed as though seen through the eyes of people who live in the dark: overexposed, blurry, unreal. The most horrific thing is that Harry, Marion, Tyrone, and Sara are incredibly likable characters, making their descent almost intolerably painful to watch.
At the heart of this hell is Burstyn's brave performance as Sara. We're used to seeing young people go junk-crazy, but the sight of Sara, a sixtysomething woman with a dead husband and an errant son, plummeting into the abyss is nearly unbearable. Almost as acutely unsettling is Connelly's turn as Marion. At first, she seems like the film's token pretty girl. But Marion reveals a quiet intelligence that incrementally demeans and systematically destroys her.
Ultimately, the film is not about drugs per se. In a preface to a new edition of Selby's book, Aronofsky describes his film as a "monster movie," with the monster being payback for buying into an American Dream that promises that happiness comes from without (consumable products, represented here as dope) as opposed to from within (love). Whether you agree with this grim view of America almost doesn't matter; in a year of cinematic Velveeta, Requiem for a Dream is a slice of grittily humane truth. It's not a very fun film, but it is one of the scant few possibly great films of this aggressively moribund cinematic year.