Sara Goldfarb dreams of being on television. Harry Goldfarb dreams of living the dream. Marion Silver dreams of finding and sharing love.
What none of them ever dreamed was that they'd become the kind of sad, lonely victims you read about in police logs.
Such are the pitfalls of human existence examined in "Requiem for a Dream," a heartbreaking, devastating film from director Darren Aronofsky ("Pi") that takes Hollywood's traditional optimism that things will work out and stands it on its head. Based on a novel by Hubert Selby Jr. (who collaborated with Aronofsky on the screenplay), it paints a relentlessly disturbing portrait of addiction.
Looking outside themselves for answers, Sara, Harry and Marion each becomes hopelessly addicted to something - an object, a chemical, a sensation. "Requiem for a Dream" paints as harrowing a portrait of substance abuse as anything outside an actual drug treatment center. But beyond simply horrifying its audience, Aronofsky's film suggests the folly of depending on anything other than yourself to achieve your dreams.
Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is a frumpy widow whose days have been reduced to worrying about her son and watching motivational TV. It's an empty existence, but that doesn't seem to bother Sara until a phone call alerts her she's in the running to become a game-show contestant. Overjoyed by her seeming good luck, and by the concurrent implication that her life isn't a waste after all, she chooses her wardrobe for the big day - a bright red dress that fit fine 25 pounds ago.
When her efforts to lose weight come to naught, she heeds a friend's advice and goes to a doctor. Without even looking at her (the AMA will not consider "Requiem for a Dream" flattering), he writes out a prescription for diet pills. Soon, Sara's losing weight all right, but at horrific cost.
Meanwhile, her son, Harry (Jared Leto), is a drug-addled ne'er-do-well who's just waiting for the chance - any chance - to score big. His opportunity comes when he and his friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), start making a tidy profit by doing small-time drug-dealing. At first, his prosperity seems to set him straight; he buys a new TV for his mom and an engagement ring for his girlfriend, and starts cutting back on his drug habit. But the prosperity doesn't last, and soon Harry is descending to depths he never suspected existed.
His girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), may be the most tragic figure of all. Unlike Harry, whose addiction (to drugs) is the most straightforward, and Sara, whose predilection for letting others run her life seems like the easiest to rise above, Marion's dilemma defies categorization. Although she's soon matching Harry injection for injection, her problems go deeper than that. Perhaps her most dangerous tendency is simply trusting - that she'll become a successful dress designer, that people will deal fairly with her, that she and Harry have a future.
Aronofsky uses just about every cinematic trick possible to portray the horrors of addiction: distorted camera angles, shadows that obscure people's faces, fast-motion photography, even animated refrigerators that attack poor Sara (this may be the first film where a cheeseburger is as menacing as heroin). The result is an unrelentingly dark vision that's as hard to watch as it is impossible to walk away from.
Leto and Connelly turn in some of their best work; his youthful earnestness and her luminous beauty both play effectively against type. And in Sara, Burstyn has her most substantive role in years, a character whose journey into self-delusion is as horrifying as it is absorbing.
"Requiem for a Dream" is not an easy film to watch, and it induces perhaps a few too many cringes; we could have done without watching one character's shock treatment, for example, or another's increasingly gangrenous arm. But this is not a film that celebrates life; rather, it's one that waves a cautionary banner that, if heeded, may lead to lives worth celebrating.
`Requiem for a Dream'
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Released by Artisan Entertainment
Unrated (Language, violence, drug use, sexual situations)
Running time 102 minutes
Sun score: *** 1/2