Darren Aronofsky applies formidable talent and technique to off-putting material in “Requiem for a Dream.” Working with name actors and a bigger budget, but in the same semi-experimental narrative vein as in his eye-opening 1998 debut “Pi,” helmer confirms his promise with an imaginative approach to sight and sound — but he’s clearly sorting out some personal issues in his sophomore picture that won’t prove appealing or accessible to many viewers. Commercial prospects are slight.
Aronofsky grew up in Brooklyn near Coney Island and went to Harvard, and both aspects of his background are reflected in this brainy film about ordinary people. Curiously static despite its high creative energy, “Requiem” examines the wages of addiction, a pretty wearisome subject after all these decades of drug-related dramas. To his credit, Aronofsky has found some arresting new cinematic means to convey artificially induced highs and lows, but they only go to show that, this late in the game, even the most lucid technique can’t dredge up new insights into the harrowing nature of addiction.
Dramatic locus is Coney Island, where aging Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) obsessively watches gameshows in her old high-rise apartment. Her vacant life is given a sudden charge by a phone call informing her that she is to become a contestant on her favorite show; she immediately dyes her hair orange and embarks upon a drastic diet in preparation for her appearance. Unfortunately, this involves some pills that she soon can’t live without.
At the same time, Sara’s aimless but seemingly goodhearted son, Harry (Jared Leto), is looking for a way to score. Before long, he and his affable partner, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), obtain a pound of pure cocaine; they sell it at a profit that puts them on easy street for a while. Not druggies themselves, they nonetheless decide that they have to sample the merchandise, and eventually become hooked, as does Harry’s beautiful, frisky girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly).
The four characters’ downward spirals are charted over the course of three seasons, from the heady days of summer, when they are all flush with happiness and anticipation of even better days to come, through an ominous fall marked by creeping desperation once they’re hooked, and into a devastating winter when they hit bottom and feel the full assault of their acquired demons.
Progression gives the decline a defined dramatic structure that is colored by distinct emotional moods, which are enhanced by Matthew Libatique’s dark and heavily filtered lensing. But it also imposes a schematic and predictable course that locks the adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel into rigid fatalism that sets the situations and characters at a considerable remove from reality.
Keeping things interesting, however, are the stylistic gambits Aronofsky has developed to provide visual correlatives for his characters’ behavior.
Beginning with some split-screen work and elaborate jump-cutting to convey the progress of events rapidly, he and editor Jay Rabinowitz introduce reiterated montages of specific images to indicate mood alteration. Presented over and over again, these become somewhat tiresome, but it also becomes clear that their very repetition is meant to replicate the cyclical nature of drug taking, just as it mirrors the numbingly repetitive nature of the techno and hip-hop music (often complemented by original string compositions played by the Kronos Quartet) that’s constantly droning in the background on the soundtrack.
By the end, the film’s elaborate visual strategies pay off in a cleverly conceived, and undeniably powerful, montage that reveals all the characters in extremis upon hitting rock bottom. It’s technically striking filmmaking, to be sure, but what it’s presenting is nothing that many people will want to look at.
Beyond the muscular display of technique, pic gives hints that Aronofsky has talent as a director of actors. Burstyn and Leto are often trapped by the straight tracks on which their characters are placed, but together excel in the film’s quietest, most sustained emotional scene, a mother-son reunion in which he calls her on her pill-popping only to be rebuffed by her rationalization that the hope of the TV show gives her something to live for.
For her part, Connelly, a distinctly limited actress in the past, lets go physically and emotionally far more than she ever has, to surprisingly good effect, while comic performer Wayans comes across as appealing and natural in his first dramatic film role.
Craftwork is aces across the board, with a sound mix that’s particularly dense.