Can a movie be banal and highly original at the same time? If so, that movie is "Requiem for a Dream," the second offering from Brooklyn, N.Y., wunderkind Darren Aronofsky. No young American filmmaker has been so interested in altered mental states since David Lynch was a pup. Like Aronofsky's debut film, "Pi," "Requiem for a Dream" deliberately jumps the rails of realism, devolving into a Hieronymus Bosch-like stew of distortion, obsession and madness until it seems that the movie itself is hallucinating, rather than the characters.
TV characters, looking pixilated and a little out of focus, invade a woman's living room. A refrigerator becomes a ravenous beast. Cupcakes and cookies come through the ceiling like UFOs. Even eating a half-grapefruit and a boiled egg becomes a mind-altering experience. And that's without counting all the trippy smack, coke, pot, speed and coffee highs.
This time around, Aronofsky has the budget for some first-rate actors, nightmarish effects and a terrific musical score by Clint Mansell (played by the Kronos Quartet). He's also surer of his narrative ground. For all its showboating, "Requiem for a Dream" has a straightforward story at its spine and never completely loses touch with it.
Frankly, that's the problem. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Aronofsky is much stronger in his art-school freakout mode than when he's trying to stick to the plot. (Memo to other young filmmakers: Please do not treat this as general advice.)
Other filmmakers are said to think like musicians, but Aronofsky genuinely appears to. There's a rapid-fire montage in "Requiem for a Dream" that repeats, with minor variations, every time his drug-addled characters prepare to get high. The lines are cut, or the joint is rolled, or the dope is cooked; then we see the inside of a blood vessel and the dilation of the eyeball.
When he eventually repeats this sequence using a Mr. Coffee machine rather than verboten drug paraphernalia, the point is made far more delicately than it could ever be with dialogue. Texture, rhythm and pace are everything in Aronofsky's movies: his overloaded images, split screens, fast motion, slow motion and stop motion; his intertitles that come crashing down with the sound of a garage door closing. Whatever Aronofsky has to express lies in this promiscuous display, not in the didactic and overly familiar tale he has to offer here.
"Requiem for a Dream" is a junkie fable, adapted from the 1978 novel by post-Beat legend Hubert Selby Jr. (also the author of "Last Exit to Brooklyn"). Junkie fables can be told well or poorly, but they're all basically the same. We meet flawed but sympathetic characters: in this case, Brighton Beach layabout Harry (Jared Leto), his upper-crust girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and their pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans).
We see how dope makes them feel powerful, makes them feel (wrongly) that they're in control of their lives. Then we watch as dope enslaves them, while they desperately try to reclaim that illusory sense of power and are reduced to abject misery. In "Requiem for a Dream," the extremity of the various characters' final predicaments is almost comical; let's just say that amputation, electroshock therapy, foot-long dildos and chain gangs are involved.
Leto and Connelly make an affecting young couple in love going no place. The time period is unspecified, though it's clearly more recent than Selby's book. He's a gangly street angel with a moptop haircut; she's an all-American girl who gets caught taking a walk on the wild side, and actually becomes the skanky whore she's been pretending to be. Still, I feel like a sort of symbolic shorthand takes over in drug movies that renders all the details identical; change their clothes (but not by much) and these characters could be in "Jesus' Son" or "Less Than Zero" or (to cite the granddaddy of them all) "Panic in Needle Park." Wayans, who may have the deadliest suavity of all his brothers, plays Tyrone as a bubbly enthusiast, which is a nice touch. Drug users can be an awful lot of fun when things are going well. But the best Aronofsky can provide him with, in terms of an inner life, is a hackneyed recurring fantasy about his mother.
When Selby's book was first published, it might have been original to observe that Americans are addicted in all possible directions, not just to narcotics but also to television, diet pills, impossible visions of celebrity. The fourth character in this quadrangle, and in most ways the film's focus, is Harry's mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a lonely and overweight Jewish widow who spends all her time watching a deranged self-help infomercial called "Tappy Tibbons' Month of Fury." This touch is original to Aronofsky and Selby's screenplay, and it's inspired if grotesque satire. A studio audience chants like high school cheerleaders ("Be excited! Be, be excited!") while the unctuous, headset-wearing Tappy (Christopher McDonald) demands "juice" for the "winners" he calls onstage to recount their tales of personal transformation.
As Harry and Tyrone launch a naive scheme to become players in the Brooklyn drug market, and Marion dreams of a future as a fashion designer with her own boutique, Sara develops her own fantasy. A marketing firm calls to recruit her as a possible game-show contestant, and she becomes fixated on stuffing herself back into a favorite red dress for her date with stardom.
The grapefruit diet won't do the trick, so she ends up going to a sleazy diet doctor for a regimen of uppers and downers (some of which, as we see in labored close-up, are the same pills Harry and company take for fun). While the trio of young people slide into addiction and self-abasement, Sara sits in her apartment getting crazier and crazier, waiting for the summons from Television Land that never comes.
I can understand why Burstyn wanted to take this potentially humiliating part -- Aronofsky is a remarkable talent, whatever you make of his films -- and she does as much as anyone could to make Sara more than an object of ridicule. It's one thing that Selby's story is a relentless downward spiral; you could say the same thing about Greek tragedy. But its irony has grown tired.
We've been hearing that pop culture is addictive for 30 years, mostly from pop culture itself. Furthermore, Selby and Aronofsky seem to be mocking not only Sara's situation but also the corrupt quality of her dream, which is to be devoured by a medium that is itself corrupt. She is allowed only one tiny moment of pathos, when she admits to Harry that she's old and lonely. Shuddering and grinding her teeth from the speed, Sara tells her son, "Millions of people will see me, and they'll all love me. It's a reason to get up in the morning." This is the only time in the film, I might add, when Harry visits his mother without intending to steal her TV and hock it for dope.
Uniting Aronofsky with Selby, a Brooklyn eccentric of another generation, must have seemed at first like a marriage made in heaven. In fact, their strengths (and weaknesses) are very different. Like most practitioners of junkie literature (see William S. Burroughs and Jim Carroll), Selby is essentially a romantic in reverse gear. He never loses his compassionate identification with his junkie characters, or his sense that on some level they are doomed visionaries, even as he follows them into utter depravity. (Does this kind of thing end up encouraging drug use or discouraging it? Probably some of both; I certainly know which way it drove me as an impressionable youth.)
Aronofsky, on the other hand, is pretty standoffish. The movie itself is his subject, and it can be inside everybody's head or back away into a neutral corner, as when we observe Sara being brutalized in a mental hospital by attendants who are talking about an Atlantic City blackjack game. The tremendous power of Aronofsky's filmmaking -- its omnivorous omnipotence, if that makes any sense -- has the curious effect of diluting its emotional impact. People are not especially important to him, but perception is. His movies can't be about drugs (or anything else, really). They are drugs. Can this prodigious, peculiar talent become the Lynch or Buñuel or Godard of the infotainment era? I can't wait to find out.