Requiem For A Dream Review
Darren Aronofsky's film Requiem For A Dream is, like his earlier film pi, not likely to please everyone since it's a fiercely individual and uncompromising film. It's difficult to gauge how other viewers will respond to it. Some people have complained that the style detracts from the power of the film, but I found it one of the most disturbing and heartbreaking films I've ever seen and thought the directoral sylistics were perfectly in keeping with the content.
The film is based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr. and deals with two interlinked stories. The first concerns Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn), an ageing widow whose loneliness is tempered only by her love for the television that brings her companionship and, insidiously, feeds her hopes and dreams that have no chance of coming true. When she gets a telephone call one day from the producers of the "Tappy Tibbons" show, a sort of self-help programme for life change, she decides that she wants to wear her best red dress, the one she wore for her son's graduation. Unfortunately, it's a bit too small, so Sara decides to go on a diet. This proves unsatisfying and ineffective so she takes up a neighbour's advice and goes on a course of diet pills; uppers and downers which Sara, an addictive personality with a desire for change and something better, soon becomes addicted to with horrifying and all too believable results.
Alongside Sara's story is the even more depressing tale of her son Harry (Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Connolly) and friend Tyrone (Wayans). Harry decides that the way to get Marion into the fashion world is to set up a series of dope deals which will finance the setting up of the business. Unfortunately, this scheme proves problematic and for them, like Sara, the dream backfires in a particularly unpleasant manner.
All of these characters end up lost in a hell of their own making and the peculiar triumph of the film, for me at any rate, is the way none of them are made unsympathetic by their flaws. The compassion of Selby's writing - the fact that he genuinely cares about these mad, lost souls - is reproduced in Aronofsky's film and in the end it breaks your heart. Sometimes, the scenes are so desperately poignant that the film is impossible to watch; the final phone conversation between Harry and Marion, for example, makes me cry every time I see it and the climax in which the fates of the characters are intercut is about as powerful as anything I've seen on screen since the confession scene at the end of Happiness. Although there is no catharsis for the characters at the end, the film is cathartic in the way it portrays the anguish and despair of basically decent people and yet totally refuses to judge them; sympathy and love is extended to them and in the end, it is this compassion that stops the film wallowing in the mire of human misery. That's not to say it isn't explicit however; the film had problems with the MPAA for some of the sexual content and there is a scene in the film - to all intents and purposes a rape - that is extremely shocking. Often though, it's the smaller details that disturb; the teeth grinding when Sara begins speeding, the gaping wound on Harry's arm, the horribly realistic EST scene. Aronofsky sets out to elicit a reaction and he usually succeeds. This extends to the style of the film which is radical and not for all tastes. There's quite a lot of split screen to evoke the effect of both looking at the characters and observing what they are looking at. There is use of a camera strapped to the actors so we see them from an unusually close and intimate perspective. Most controversial though are what Aronofsky calls the "hip hop montages". Basically, this involves a lot of very sharp sounds matched to sharp images and then edited very fast to create a montage of images to represent something - for example, the experience of shooting up is evoked in fast images of cells, heroin and a dilating pupil. To make this more significant, the heroin injections are intercut with the diet pills and a pot of strong coffee. In other words, the film is saying, we all have our own drug.
The performances are right at the heart of why the film is so affecting. Jennifer Connolly - one of the most beautiful actresses in the world - is quite heart rending as she goes from optimism to despair, and she is matched by Jared Leto, an actor who gets better with every film. There is also a great performance from Christopher MacDonald as Tappy Tibbons, the moronic self-help guru whose show, with its cruelly insubstantial promises of a better life, represents all the illusory hope that eventually destroys Sara Goldfarb. But the film belongs to the extraordinary Ellen Burstyn. We've always known she was a good actress, but this is the best thing she has done since Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - not a single false note is present and there is a fearless edge to the acting that marks out the truly great performances. To see her go from lonely dignity to mute insanity is pretty exhausting on the emotions - to think this incredible actress lost out at the Oscars to Julia Roberts is depressing even for someone who gave up on the Academy years ago.
Although the style is radical and sometimes overly-tricksy - one effect with static is clever but too fussy for its own good - it does have an internal consistency and Aronofsky doesn't use style for its own sake. The edginess of the visuals and the soundtrack are clearly used as a metaphor for the addiction in the film - it's an uncompromising approach and it may not work for everyone, but I think it works very well indeed. The music adds to the power of the film - unlike the techno tracks used in pi this score is spare and elegant, performed by the Kronos Quartet and often very moving. The sound design is also noteworthy, with one moment that is sure to make you jump ! In fact, the whole film comes together so well that I can't recommend it highly enough - but I'm well aware that other people are not so enthusiastic. See it for yourself and make up your own mind.
This is a tremendously good Special Edition from the consistently impressive Artisan, a small company who have begun to put a lot of effort into their releases. Be warned that your first experience of the disc is likely to confuse you if you haven't seen the film - just go with the flow and all will become clear.
The picture quality is generally excellent and sometimes outstanding. The lighting is deliberately stylised and the disc copes well with this, demonstrating superb blacks and a good level of detail. There is no grain apparent and no artifacting either. Given the nature of some of the visual choices, the colours look very good - check out the "TV Demon Sara" in the crack-up scene for an example. I can't really fault this transfer other than to say that in places it looks a little too harsh; this is probably intentional on the part of the cinematographer Matthew Libatique but a little more variation in the sunlit scenes would have been preferable. Anyway, a very good 9 out of 10, edging towards full marks.
The sound is a solid 10. This is a very vigorous surround track with lots of effective moments - one or two will startle even the most jaded home cinema enthusiast - and an excellent transfer of the music. The strings come through with great force and the dialogue is spatially placed to good effect. Absolutely no reservations; this is stunning !
There are lots of interesting extras provided here, raising the disc to the level of a good Criterion release.
The two commentary tracks are both worthwhile. The first, by Darren Aronofsky, discusses the background to the project and the reasons behind the stylistic choices he made. He also rhapsodises, with justification, about Ellen Burstyn. It's not exactly scene-specific, although he does relate his comments to what's on screen at times. It's a measured and well sustained commentary track. The second commentary is by Matthew Libatique the DP and its a bit dry and sporadic. Still interesting in places and definitely informative, so worth trudging through once.
"The Making Of Requiem For A Dream" is not a professional documentary but just a collection of behind-the-scenes moments from the production. There is an option to have a commentary on this from Aronofsky and I recommend you use it because without the narration it doesn't make much sense. Some interesting moments of course but not a patch on the Magnolia documentary which is surely the benchmark for this sort of thing.
The deleted scenes are rather odd. Five of them form a longer sequence, which was cut from the film, in which the three young characters attempt to give up drugs. This is quite good actually and would have been fine if left in the film. There is also a lovely scene where Hubert Selby reads to Ellen Burstyn. Some may find the Marlon Wayans imitation of Jar Jar Binks much funnier than I did.
My favourite extra is the 20 minute discussion between Ellen Burstyn and Hubert Selby Jr. called "Memories Dreams and Addiction". Selby comes across as a self-deprecating survivor who has beaten immense odds to still be around to see his novels become cult favourites. Burstyn contributes some of her usual mystical mumbo-jumbo but the spotlight is deservedly on Selby.
The "Anatomy Of A Scene" is a brief examination of the scene where Ellen Burstyn is speeding. Interesting but nothing unexpected.
There are 2 theatrical trailers and 2 TV spots, cast and crew biographies (more detailed than usual) and some production notes. The menus are designed in the style of an informercial for Tappy Tibbins and are very effective if a little baffling at first. There's also another extra in the form of an exploration of Tappy's life and work which is a brilliant pastiche.
33 chapter stops and a nice booklet complete a very attractive package. although you might want to skip the hyperbolic drivel from the egregious Harry Knowles.
The "Director's Cut" is the one to get, by the way. There were plans for Artisan to release a cut "R" rated version, disowned by Aronofsky, but I don't know if this came about. Anyway, the one with "Director's Cut" on the top is the one I've reviewed here.
One of the finest films of the year gets the DVD release it deserves. A very worthwhile package indeed.