The Needle and the Damage Done: Requiem for a Dream

"It'll all work out," says TV-junky Sara Goldfarb, played by Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. "You'll see already. In the end it's all nice." Well, it's blatantly obvious from the trailer alone that nothing in this film will work out. Spoken to her son Harry (Jared Leto) during the film's centerpiece scene in her Coney Island apartment, these lines produce a wrenching unease. By this point we've learned that Sara is addicted to diet pills, her son has an eight-hundred pound monkey sitting on his shoulders, and that each is lying to the other. But Requiem isn't a drug movie; it's a film about addiction. In the end, nothing's nice and yes, the film deserves its NC-17 rating.

Based on Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 book of the same title, the film, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi), hinges on two parallel plot-lines. The first is Harry's story: A fatherless drifter and small-time hood, Harry and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) pawn Sara's treasured television set for drugs. As addictions grow stronger so do aspirations, and eventually the two bankroll their heroin into professional careers. The money enables Harry's girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) to buy a Soho-style fashion boutique, which in addition to manufacturing haute couture, provides the three a safehouse for their obsessions, wild drug parties and general debauchery, during which it becomes clear, operating under no knowledge of karma whatsoever, that when the end comes it's going to be ugly. Meanwhile, Sara receives a phone call from a television studio in Manhattan, asking her if she'd like to appear on television.

That's inauspicious because all Sara does is watch television anyway and so, obsessed with losing enough weight to make a beautiful debut on the small screen, she sees a doctor who prescribes her diet pills. The diet pills significantly reduce her weight but also her sanity, which is the point of this movie. Less -- as in sanity, compassion and health -- is most certainly more. As addiction eats at and then envelops their personalities, the horror of the characters' ends is cringe-worthy. The abcess on Jared Leto's arm -- makeup though it might be -- is one of the most revolting images in cinematic history. It's a punishing film. Redemption, rehab and spiritual awakening each sold separately.

"I wanted to make a tragedy, in the classical sense," says Aranofsky, 29. "Requiem for a Dream is a deep, yet simple examination of what makes us human, and I wanted to treat it like that. It's my second film, and I wanted it to be special."

And its humanity is exactly what makes this movie special. Its unabashed drive toward gothic horror and the twisted, filthy basement of things is reminiscent of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, while its stars are more like beautiful Trainspotting club-kids. But Requiem is more the former than the latter -- there's no glamor to the street-life here, and the perverse ends each character is given helps to reinforce that. There's no hope in this film. "It was the most difficult shoot I've ever worked on," says Leto, who lost 25 pounds to play Harry, "but also the most rewarding. To prepare, I spent time living on the Bowery, where overdoses are just accepted as matter-of-fact, daily events." Connelly, who spent time preparing with Leto, also admits the film unsettled her. "I rented another apartment in my building as a kind of safe zone to decompress before going home to take care of my two-year-old," she says. And Marlon Wayans, appearing here in his first dramatic role, says that he got the part by not showering for three days before auditioning. Aranofsky agrees that Wayans smelled. With that sort of dedication, not to mention depth and darkness of plot, it's up-for-grabs which Ellen Burstyn film is the more horrifying: as Academy Award-nominated actress with the Satan-plagued daughter in The Exorcist or as the victim of electro-shock therapy wandering the subway, frenetically asking passers-by, "Does this train stop at Madison Avenue?" in Requiem.

"Few people get to play with Michael Jordan every day," Aranofsky says, referring to Burstyn's pedigree. "and that is how we all felt. She was an incredible professional, an inspiration. Every day she opened her heart and flooded our lens with love."

Although Burstyn's acting is certainly noteworthy, it's not love that appears on the other side of Aranofsky's lens. Rather, the director employs what he calls "hip-hop" editing of "punk" subject matter to endow the film with properties enjoyable to any MTV-generation whizkid. Scissor-quick, jump-cut edits in repetitive loops characterize the film's drug-sequences, and the squeamish and conservative should take note: There's only one scene in the entire film with actual needle penetration. The rest is beautifully-shot in hallucinatory color, set to a rousing soundtrack from Clint Mansell (ex-frontman of Pop Will Eat Itself) and the Kronos Quartet, which not only imbues Brooklyn with fear, but also begs the question, "Coney Island: Whose idea of fun?"

"I didn't want to make a drug film," Aranofsky admits. "I think this film is far more about relationships, struggles and how each character eventually unravels." Although it's clear that drugs are the film's linchpin, it's in his characters' reactions to them that the film carries weight. The ways in which Harry and Sara enhance their lives wind up controlling and transforming them into amputees of their former selves, literally excising pounds of flesh as the price of pleasure. It's not a pretty film, but illustrates the disease of need. What's most striking is how normal these people are and how quickly they dissolve. But, unless you or any of your relatives live in Coney Island, you've probably got nothing to worry about.

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