Film Reviews

Spanking the Junkie

The soon-to-be-talked-about sensations in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream include three or four flashing, near-subliminal montages that combine an eye's iris and dilating pupil; an extreme close-up of heroin cooking in a teaspoon, and a sucking hypodermic needle; a surpassingly frightening sequence in which Ellen Burstyn, in the midst of amphetamine hallucinations, tries to make sense of her distorted doctor and his office; and a quickly glimpsed (is it really there?) drug orgy featuring (I think) a little grinding bare ass and a splash of recreational lubricant. These perceived visual sins quickly earned Requiem the disapproval of Jack Valenti and his merry band of letter-turners at the MPAA, in the form of a rare NC-17 rating. Such branding can, of course, bring trouble at the box office, but it is more likely to provoke heightened interest on the part of every teenager who's ever tried popcorn.

After unsuccessfully appealing the rating, the film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, is standing foursquare behind the young director by refusing to make any cuts and taking the film to market "unrated." This means even some otherwise open-minded art houses may decline to book it.

It will be a pity if that happens. Because young Aronofsky, who two years ago enthralled devotees of the independent cinema with Pi, a startling black-and-white venture into mathematical obsession and madness that he made for the cost of one of Brad Pitt's limousine rentals, takes a giant leap forward here. The MPAA may have wanted a punch-up, but Aronofsky is likely to get in the most solid shot. Requiem is a fluent, intelligent piece of work whose sex and violence are anything but gratuitous, and exactly the kind of highly personal, no-holds-barred vision of life on the ragged edge that independents always aspire to but rarely have the goods to achieve. Those who didn't understand, with Pi, what a talented and original filmmaker this guy is, will probably see it now. This is the real thing -- a savage and wholly convincing journey into the horrors of drug addiction that no censor can tame, not once it gets percolating in the brain waves.

Aronofsky's co-conspirator in this supposed affront to polite society is none other than the oft-attacked novelist Hubert Selby Jr., who trades almost exclusively in urban nightmare, abnormal psychology and raw emotion. Selby's notorious Last Exit to Brooklyn, you may recall, was the subject of a 1964 obscenity trial in Britain and the inspiration for a none-too-effective 1989 German film directed by Uli Edel. With Aronofsky's film version of Requiem, which was published in 1978, Selby's scabrous yet highly humane fiction finally gets the vivid cinematic translation it deserves, Valenti and his Vanna Whites be damned.

Meet the Goldfarbs of Coney Island, who are an eccentric duo. By eccentric, I mean that young Harry (Girl, Interrupted's Jared Leto) regularly pawns the family television set to support his heroin habit and actually believes that habit to be the means to future financial success. By eccentric, I mean that Harry's widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), sits for long hours in her humble living room, daydreaming that she will soon be a contestant on a TV game show and the envy of the nation. By eccentric, I mean that neither the unhinged son nor the delirious mother has the vaguest inkling of what ails them, least of all that they are both trapped by the most powerful kind of delusion.

For Selby fans, this is familiar territory, more or less. In The Room, he let fly with an imprisoned psychopath's revenge fantasies, and The Demon chronicled a business executive's scary sexual obsessions. So we should not be surprised when Selby casts the Goldfarbs, mother and son alike, into a hell of addiction and destruction. In pursuit of her TV fantasy and a svelte figure, Sara falls into the clutches of a pill-crazy quack and descends into speed-induced madness. If you thought the fever dreams in Trainspotting were a fright, wait until Sara's refrigerator starts making monster moves against her at three o'clock in the morning. While her ordeal is mostly solitary, Harry has plenty of company. With his best friend and fellow user, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), he gets mixed up in a crackpot scheme to score a pound of pure smack, but everything goes wrong and the desperate junkies find themselves on a doomed drug run to Florida. Harry's pretty girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), is also swept into the maelstrom, reduced to basics, degraded. The film's brief orgy scene may get all the ink, but the movie's sad view of this young woman curled into a fetal position with a bag of heroin clutched to her body is far more affecting.

Those who see Selby's work as pornography, or as cheap sensationalism, will likely raise the same complaints after seeing Aronofsky's harrowing depictions. But those who regard Selby as a kind of muckraker, as a vigorous moralist bent on exposing social decay, may find in the grotesque physical and psychological deterioration of these four characters a star chart for the times. In no way, shape or manner does Requiem glamorize drug use, and its visions of depravity are far more terrifying than hip. If anything, this is one of the most authentic horror movies ever shot. Witness the surreal moment when two dozen freezing New York junkies line up at the back door of a gleaming supermarket, waiting to buy drugs out of an orange-juice truck.

Credit Aronofsky for perseverance. Three years ago he was soliciting contributions from friends and family -- $50 and $100 bills -- to get his first feature onto the screen. Now that he's got a reputation and a higher budget to work with, he continues to press forward with a vision of hell on Earth that's even more corrosive and moving than Selby's original. In terms of worldly sin and eternal damnation, Hieronymous Bosch has very little on him, much less the hacks who churn out the empty-headed mayhem of the superhero epics.

A note on the music: Once again, the young director uses a haunting electronic score by the British composer Clint Mansell to great effect. Mansell's soundtrack for Pi almost perfectly expressed the characters' fugitive states of mind, and he does it again here: This collaboration is becoming as fruitful as Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, and let's hope it continues to thrive.

Obviously, Requiem for a Dream isn't for the weak of heart, but it confirms the arrival of an important new filmmaker who refuses to ignore unpleasant facts and has found the means to get inside troubled psyches and troubled times.

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Bill Gallo