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REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans
Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  May 22, 2001

"They held each other and kissed, and pushed each others’ darkness into the corner…” – Hubert Selby, Jr.

Film ****

Requiem for a Dream is one of the most harrowing, shocking and intensely moving films I have ever seen.  It’s like sliding down the edge of a straight razor for an hour and forty minutes.  It’s uncompromising style never dilutes the narrative or the emotion of the story and the characters, and indeed, there were moments during the movie when I wasn’t sure if my tears fell from horror or sadness.

Darren Aronofsky created one of the most intelligent, absorbing and stylistic low-budget films ever made two years ago with Pi.  I can remember clearly my reaction to seeing it for the first time was rabid anticipation for what this talented young visionary would do for a follow-up project.  But not even the depth and breadth of Pi prepared me for the experience of watching Requiem.

It has been called a movie about drugs and abusing medications…accurate enough, but an oversimplification.  It would be better to call it a movie about human frailties, hopes, dreams, losses, obsessions and heartbreaks…the presence of drugs simply fuels all of them.  It tackles a topical and common subject without preachiness…in fact, the world of the movie is so much the world of the addict that those characters who aren’t in on the problem are the ones that seem the most strange and distant.

The picture centers on four characters:  Sara (Burstyn), a widowed mother whose lonely life centers around her little apartment and her television set, her son Harry (Leto) and his girlfriend Marion (Connelly), two drug users with dreams of better things, and Harry’s friend and partner Tyrone (Wayans), who joins them.

The opening two minutes establish the film’s visual style and hypnotic power:  Harry is taking Sara’s meager television to pawn for drug money, a scenario we suspect has played out many times…but during the scene, the image splits in two; giving both characters their own separate space, subjectivity and focus.  This is only the first use of split screen for Aronofsky;  a later and more cunningly disturbing one shows Harry and Marion in bed, side by side, looking into each other’s eyes.  At first, the split isn’t noticed, but soon, we see that despite their implied closeness, they are much farther apart than we think.   As each person reaches into the other’s space, movements and actions don’t always match up.  It’s quietly disorienting, and just one of a number of ways Aronofsky uses a few strokes of cinematic style to convey a cornucopia of information.

Sara, meanwhile, believing she has a chance to appear on a television show, starts wanting to lose weight.  (Anyone who’s experienced dieting will chuckle at the audacity with which the film visually depicts obsession with food).  A friend leads her to a doctor who prescribes pills.  The pills help her weight loss, sure, but also begin to regulate her up and down times as well.  In one disharmonious scene with her son, he is quite mellow from coming down while she is so keyed up that her teeth grind audibly.  Again, there is a notion of two people in close proximity, but worlds apart.  Their attempt at conversation is practically hopeless.

Harry and Tyrone try to turn their habit into something that can make money for them.  It seems to work at first, but apart from the highs brought on by their cash and stash, real life grows increasingly more empty and more uncomfortable for them.  Marion also becomes a victim of their crumbling dream, and finds herself reduced to a state she never could have imagined.

The great irony of addiction is that the one thing that takes everything away from a person ends up as the only thing that keeps him going.  As each character’s situation worsens, Aronofsky drives the stories to their inevitable climaxes at the same time, using editing and a rising cacophony of sound to increase the horror and tension to almost sickening levels.  Each ends up in the care or at the mercy of others (maybe both in all cases), but if you’re looking for the inevitable speech about addictions, you won’t find it.  Who would even need it after witnessing what this film has to show?

A lot of courage went into the making of this movie, particularly those companies like Artisan and Thousand Words who helped finance it.  The bravery of the actors is remarkable as well, and each of them is rewarded for their faith with a career-making performance.  Ms. Burstyn, who is a very attractive older lady, pushes herself beyond the edge of drug-induced ugliness and becomes the embodiment of tragedy, madness and helplessness.  Likewise, the beautiful Jennifer Connelly slowly sheds her cover girl image and surrenders to the throes of her character’s weakness.  Jared Leto is perfect as the sickly, strung out and fading Harry.   And, if you’re like me and only know Marlon Wayans for his comedy prowess, you’re in for a surprising turn with his work here.

Credit must also go to the writing by Aronofsky and novelist Hubert Selby, Jr., for creating a script that drips with a fragile, naked human poetry.  But it is really Aronofsky’s daring vision as a director that unites all parts of Requiem into a greater sum.  His ability to carefully unite an overwhelming visual style with the most painfully beautiful expression of emotion make the film an unqualified masterpiece.

Call it disturbing, call it frightening, call it sensory overload if you will…just also call Requiem for a Dream one of the best and most original films of recent memory, and consider Darren Aronofsky THE young filmmaker to watch for the early part of this new century.

Video ****

The only aspect that equals the greatness of the film is the quality of this DVD presentation from Artisan.  Though a film with a deliberately extreme and sometimes harsh palate of visuals, this disc captures everything with integrity, clarity, and potency for a maximum viewing experience.  The strong contrasts balance against the sometimes purposely muted imagery, and with Aronofsky’s occasionally jarring camera work and lighting extremes, this disc will offer your TV or monitor a thorough workout. 

Audio ****

I suspected this 5.1 soundtrack would be a whirlwind experience given the movie’s subject matter; I suspected correctly.   With hallucinogenic scenarios that whip both front and rear stages into sonic frenzies, as well as subtle uses of rising and falling dynamics with audio effects and music, not to mention the techno-driven score that orchestrates itself using all of your speakers, this is an amazing and enthralling listening experience.

Features ****

I’ve never begun a features section of a review talking about the disc’s menu screens, but I have to here.  This DVD boasts one of the most original, well done and clever uses of menus I’ve ever seen.

Apart from that, the disc begins with a terrific and informative commentary track by Darren Aronofsky, who speaks with a relaxed style and offers lots of insight.  A second commentary track features director of photography Matthew Libatique.  There is a making-of documentary (not professionally made, but interesting, an includes a bonus of an optional Aronofsky commentary not listed on the box), some deleted scenes with or without commentary, a segment where Ellen Burstyn interviews novelist Herbert Selby, Jr., the Sundance Channel short special “Anatomy of a Scene”, cast and crew info, production notes, plus two trailers and two TV spots.  An outstanding package!

Summary:

If you want an unforgettable movie experience, one that blends terrific performances, a great script and a daring, unflinching visual style and produces a haunting, emotional masterpiece, look no further than Requiem for a Dream.  This isn’t a film you watch…you experience it.  It’s one that won’t leave you once the credits start to roll.  With this top drawer DVD effort from Artisan, this is one movie lover should pass up.  Unreservedly recommended.