Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” a haunting and beautiful story of loneliness and desperation, is the most powerfully disturbing movie of the year, possibly of the last several years.

Many critics have already correctly observed that the film is often harrowing to watch, yet one can’t help but continue watching it. Like the drugs that play a major part in the film, “Requiem for a Dream” inspires an attitude of hoping never to witness such dreadfulness again, while simultaneously making you want to rewatch it.

The film follows four Coney Island characters through a summer, fall and winter (fittingly, there is no rejuvenating spring for these people, a fact that is apparent from the first few ominous moments). Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) is a sweet but shiftless young man who, with his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans — who knew a Wayans brother could act?), is on the verge of becoming a successful heroin dealer, and let’s just say they should have no problem knowing which products to recommend to their customers. Harry’s girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), also an addict, wants to be a fashion designer, and Harry has pie-in-the-sky dreams of helping her open a clothing store.

Meanwhile, Harry’s widowed mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) sits at home and repeatedly watches the same weight-loss infomercial on TV, a creepy program (but not unlike real shows of that ilk) featuring diet guru Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald). When she gets the chance to become a game show contestant, she decides she must wear the red dress she wore at Harry’s high school graduation. This requires losing weight, however, and soon Sara is addicted to diet pills.

The four characters’ lives intersect constantly, but in the film’s last act, each begins his own separate downward spiral, culminating in a four-way finale that thunders, crescendos and horrifies. There are some specific acts of depravity, certainly — Marion goes to obscene lengths to acquire a fix, and Harry’s track-marked left arm keeps getting worse — but the more gripping scenarios are the ones that affect our emotions rather than our sense of morality or our queasy stomachs. The final shot of one character who has yet to hit rock-bottom but who most definitely will is more unsettling than anything Marion does to appease her monstrously evil drug dealer (Keith David).

Each of the characters is, in his or her own way, yearning for love and acceptance. One could see the film as nothing more than an anti-drug rant, and while it’s effective as that — I wonder whether I’ll ever so much as take an aspirin again — to say that’s all it is would minimize its real intent. Drugs provide the escape (and ultimately the ruin) of the four, but it’s their human longing and neediness that most audiences will be able to relate to.

Harry tells Marion, “Someone like you could really make my life all right.” She tells him, “You make me feel like a person.” Tyrone’s bed-hopping is due to isolation, not lust. Sara’s desire for weight loss is not born of the American thinness obsession, but of an ever-more tenuous grip on reality and a longing to have her husband and son back at home. Most of us are not drug addicts, but all of us have felt these emotions or some variation of them.

The acting is fantastic all the way around, but it is Ellen Burstyn who deserves the Best Actress Oscar this year for her devastating, heart-wrenching performance. Darren Aronofsky deserves at least a nomination, too, for his adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel (Selby co-wrote the screenplay) and more especially for his visceral, you-are-there directing. Cameras are mounted in corners to resemble surveillance cameras, and attached to actors to give the effect of being the object they’re pursuing. The quick cuts and crackling sound effects that occur when someone shoots up or pops a pill re-create vividly the exhilaration of being high.

I whole-heartedly recommend this film, but make no mistake: It is disturbing and often graphic. Be aware that while it has been released without a rating, that is because the rating it was given was NC-17, and the distributor knew there were theaters that would show an unrated film before they would show an NC-17 one. To tone down the graphic elements, however, would be to lessen the film’s effectiveness. It is necessary to wallow in the destruction with the characters; merely being told that they had wallowed wouldn’t have been enough.

A (1 hr., 42 min.; Not Rated, but originally received an NC-17 for abundant harsh profanity, abundant drug use, abundant sexuality, heavy nudity.)