This isn't meant as a criticism of Aronofsky's career plans--it'll be interesting to see what he does with the much-maligned caped crusader series, and he's definitely an assured filmmaker with a post-millennial style all his own. With his first film, he crafted an utterly unique, black and white, mathematical, and Talmudic thriller that caught the indie film world's eye. With Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky has taken a step forward, creating a grueling, intense, and sometimes darkly funny, cautionary tale about that old bugaboo, addiction.
Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem charts the dual descents into degradation of Harry (Jared Leto), a good guy who happens to like shooting up, and his widowed mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) whose obsession with getting on television leads to a diet pill habit. On his way down, Harry drags his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and best pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) with him.
Selby's novel, published in 1978, is from the beat-inspired stream-of-altered-consciousness school, and Aronofsky's rapid-fire editing captures the frenetic pace of the characters' minds. (The movie is reputed to have more cuts than any other feature in film history, although it's not clear who counts such things.) Many directors are deservedly criticized for an "MTV" short-attention-span style, but in Aronofsky's hands, it's a legitimate, music-inspired aesthetic. It also saves time. For instance, we're spared endless scenes of needles going into arms by Aronofsky's use of a shorthand montage (baggie is emptied, spoon is heated, plunger is pressed, eyes dilate) to tell us in five seconds what would otherwise take minutes.
But to focus only on the drugs in Requiem is to miss the film's theme, which is addiction in a larger sense. This becomes clear in the story of Sara, as embodied by Burstyn in a haunting, fearless performance that damn well better get her nominated for something. Sara is hooked on food and television, a combination that becomes dangerous when she receives a call telling her she'll be on a show. Wanting to fit in her favorite dress again for this life-defining opportunity, Sara gets hooked on Dexedrine. The pills, in this case, are merely a symptom of Sara's deeper and more amorphous problems.
To get philosophical for a minute: The roots of all these characters' problems stem from the universal human desires for companionship, acceptance, and meaning, and the universal human weaknesses of self-delusion, desperation, and miscommunication. It's these recognizable frailties that keep Harry, Marion, Tyrone, and especially Sara, worthy of our sympathy despite their sometimes objectionable behavior.
Requiem for a Dream ends up as one of the most effective anti-drug films ever made. The degradation to which our sorry quartet sinks is graphically depicted, to the degree that the film was threatened with an NC-17 stamp before being released unrated. It's harsh stuff and, without spoiling too much, there's no last minute, Hollywood-style redemption. Does this mean that two years from now, our jaws will drop as a beaten, bankrupt, and bloodied Batman is finished off by a slug in the temple from The Riddler? One can only hope.