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Requiem for a Dream

conjures its fair share of nightmares

In his novels, Hubert Selby Jr. drags you down into the subterranean desperation of humanity at its absolute lowest. Whether its addiction, insanity or tragic acts that scar the psyche forever, Selby takes you to the depths, and you willingly follow because there’s some hint of beauty oozing out of his bric-a-brac literary style. So when a talented, innovative, fearless director like Darren Arnofsky (Pi) takes Selby’s work to heart and reworks it for the screen, the final product promises to scathe and burn itself into your conscience.

The story, co-written by Selby and Arnofsky, centers around Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), a Queens kid who repeatedly hawks his mother’s beloved television set so he and his (only) friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) can score some more heroin. The plan: to buy a huge amount of smack, sell it, shoot very little, and make a ton of money. That’s it; easy as the American dream. But of course, Tyrone, Harry, and Harry’s poor little rich girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connolly) get hooked, deals go sour, and they end up as broke, destitute addicts. Harry’s mom, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), is probably the loneliest woman imaginable. She lives alone in Queens, still talks to her dead husband Seymour, and occasionally interrupts her TV watching to sit in the sun and gossip with the rest of the lonely women on her block. Sara’s addiction? Television, food, and the dream that Harry will settle down and have a nice, respectable family one day. Harry’s descent parallels his mother’s, who, after she finds out she’s been chosen to go on her favorite TV show, gets addicted to diet pills prescribed by a quack doctor.

It’s as depressing as it sounds, but there’s a method to the madness--this isn’t just some gratuitous Hollywood tragedy designed to make you weep and wail. What Selby’s exposing (and what Arnofsky hints at when his in-your-face visual style subsides enough to let the story emerge) is the absolute danger of the American dream. It’s not a "heroin is dangerous and chic too," kind of story or a "gritty urban drama," in the easy sense. Requiem for a Dream digs in and wrenches out profound truths about the empty, soulless potentiality of American culture with its worship of money, fame and success. The incessant deification of that notion of "being somebody" is what kills the spirit of every character in the story, not the drugs, which are just a means to an end.

The film culminates with a montage so dark and disturbing you might not get more than a few daring peeks at it from between the shield of your fingers. The tragedy of the characters’ situation seeps through during this sequence, but Arnofsky takes it just a little too far past absurdity, and into what feels more like a farce. Unfortunately for the audience, Arnofsky’s camera acts like a hyper speed-addled, acid-tripping spectator, and we, for better or for worse, experience the story through its eyes.

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Requiem for a Dream
Rated R
1 hour 42 minutes

Ellen Burstyn
Jennifer Connelly
Keith David
Jared Leto
Marlon Wayans

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