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'Requiem for a Dream'

'Dream' sinks likable character to unthinkable lows

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Requiem for a Dream" may be the best movie this year that filmgoers will find almost unbearable at times.

"Requiem for a Dream"

Rating: Unrated; contains harrowing scenes of drug addiction, nudity, sexual situations, brief violence

Starring: Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Marlon Wayans

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Web site: www.requiemfor

Critic's call:


Director Darren Aronofsky's hallucinatory drama about addiction displays the talent of a master filmmaker who takes us from the benign to the base as his characters get sucked in by their dreams, their drugs and the dreariness of their lives.

In the last 15 minutes of the film, he spares us nothing as these characters fall to the utter depths of degradation and then emerge to confront what is left of themselves.

The movie offers a forceful anti-drug message, tied to a statement about a culture that tantalizes people with visions of easy gratification through things that glitter in the night, but prove to be no more substantial or lasting than a crack high or the evanescent image on a TV screen.

The movie begins with young Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) cutting the chain hooking his mother's television set to the radiator in her Brighton Beach apartment. It is the first of many rituals depicted in the film -- Harry pawns the set for money to feed his heroin addiction, mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) ends up buying it back.

The widow Goldfarb lives alone in an old building with elderly neighbors who line up their lawn chairs on the sidewalk out front like a reception line awaiting the Grim Reaper. TV provides her fix -- specifically, an infomercial starring one Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald) and featuring a vociferous audience trained to respond with the reliability of Pavlov's dogs.

When Sara receives a phone call telling her she has been selected to appear on TV -- never naming a show nor a date -- she is determined to wear her carefully stored red dress for the occasion. But she likes her sugar too much. The dress will fit only if she loses weight. The grapefruit-and-egg diet fails to meet the minimum requirements of a consumer society -- it is neither pleasant nor quick. So her apparently indifferent doctor prescribes diet pills. They work, but at a cost she does not fully realize.

Harry and his fellow junkie, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans, completely convincing in a serious role), have their own obsessions. They want to be rich, and they figure the easiest way to get there involves selling a high volume of drugs in a short period of time. Harry's strung-out girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), hopes he can back her aspirations as a fashion designer -- she seems to be sketching constantly, until the floor is covered with drawings.

Of course, nothing goes as planned. Life has a way of ganging up on those who fool themselves into thinking it will always be obliging or cheery. Each of the characters gets a comeuppance that is all the more horrifying because, despite their drug habits, they don't really seem to be bad people.

Sara Goldfarb is merely a lonely widow who wants to feel important again, who wants a goal and a purpose, who wants people to recognize her. Yet by film's end she is utterly unrecognizable and her humanity becomes entirely devalued. Burstyn allows herself to be put through the mill and emerge as a harridan in a performance of subtle skill and tremendous courage.

Aronofsky -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Hubert Selby Jr., whose novel was its inspiration -- directs the film as if himself possessed. He employs repetition of the same images, accompanied by heightened sound, to represent the characters shooting up or indulging their other addictions.

He uses split screen to isolate characters standing or lying next to each other. Along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he captures the forlorn atmosphere of Brighton Beach and of Sara's apartment building. The visuals seem orchestrated to the hypnotic, industrial/ethereal music of the Kronos Quartet.

By film's end, audiences will themselves feel as if they've just come off some kind of buzz, alternately fascinating and merciless. Aronofsky, whose previous film was a $60,000 revelation called "Pi," has been signed to direct the next "Batman" movie. Let's hope his art doesn't succumb to the siren song of commerce.

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