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Wednesday, July 4, 2001

To shoot up, perchance to dream

Requiem for a Dream

Rating: * * * * 1/2 Director: Darren Aronofsky Running time: 102 minutes Language: English Opens July 7 at Cine Saison in Shibuya

An AP report the other day told of a Beijing teenager who jumped four stories to his death while attempting to sneak out to a local Internet cafe. His parents had locked him in his room after he'd spent three straight days and nights online. His father said that the once-model student became "a changed person" after discovering the Net. And they say drugs are bad.

Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto in "Requiem for a Dream"

Addiction comes in many forms, and director Darren Aronofsky ("Pi"), with his film "Requiem for a Dream," shows that the legal ones can be as devastating as the illegal. Based on the novel by bummer author supreme, Hubert Selby Jr. ("Last Exit to Brooklyn"), "Requiem" may be a "junkie flick," but it's certainly not the next "Trainspotting." In lieu of black humor and choosing life, we're immersed in an illusory visual trip and a slow spiral into madness and death. But Aronofsky's power is such that he knocks you on your ass and keeps you there, jaw agape, fixated on his star-crossed characters till death do you part.

Did somebody say "fix"? That's where the story begins and ends, in search of a fix, the junkie's vampiric need for self-medication. The "why" here is barely addressed; the "is" reigns supreme. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto, "Fight Club") is a junkie, and we first see him "borrowing" his mother Sara's TV to pawn for some quick cash for a score. Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a lonely widow in a retirement home, is about as addicted to the tube as her son is to dope. "This isn't happening," she says, locking herself in a closet, her words eerily mirroring the "escape" from reality that supposedly turns people to drugs.

"Requiem" is divided into three acts that progress with a tectonic certainty: "Summer" sees Harry, with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and lover Marion (Jennifer Connelly), enjoying a drug-fueled ride of dreams, laughs, and easy money through dealing. Everything's gonna be OK, so they think. Aronofsky captures their hazy routines with a recurring, blink-quick montage of images: a needle drawing liquid, a dilating pupil, junk pumping through a vein. Wasted.

Parallel to their story is Sara's; while Harry and pals indulge in every variety of dope, Sara is no less dependent on her TV game shows, her sweets, her appearance. When she gets a chance to be a contestant on a game show, she embarks on a diet in order to slip into a garment she might have worn well two decades earlier. Since her self-control stops at the edge of a box of chocolates, she goes to a doctor who prescribes "diet pills" -- medical speed.

"Fall" slams down hard. Sara is addicted to her pills and hallucinating food everywhere, doughnuts on the ceiling, her refrigerator breathing like a monster. A gang war shuts down the street supply of dope, and Harry and Marion resort to ever more desperate measures to support their habits; their relationship turns sour when Marion trades sexual favors for some dope. Believe it or not, things get even worse in "Winter."

Selby's novel, while unsparingly brutal in throwing its characters' pipe dreams into the abyss, is also a sad and poignant commentary on the gaping psychic hole that beckons addiction. Aronofsky captures the pathos with a cool minimum of sentiment. When Harry -- who knows better -- warns his mom that she'll get strung out on pills, he asks her, "What's the big deal about being on television?" She replies: "What have I got? . . . It makes tomorrow all right."

It doesn't, and that makes "Requiem" an honest film on addiction, but it's also a bit of a paradox: a drug film that's antidrug. Its hallucinatory visual style will no doubt make it a cult classic among stoned viewers, but its bleaker-than-bleak ending is a harsh comedown indeed.

Nevertheless, it's the inventive visual style of "Requiem" that makes it a must-see. It would be a disservice to take the easy route and call it "post-MTV"; rather, this is a hip-hop/dub approach to film montage. Cutups, visual "scratches" and "samples," remixes of prior shots, repetition, sudden shifts in perspective between the micro and the macro; Aronofsky just does it, shot after freaking shot. If Jennifer Connelly has a line of coke going up her nose, then he'll make damn sure the viewer gets a similar rush.

Yes, he's showing off his chops, but always in service to the story, to add another, visceral, layer of meaning. Wildly impressionistic techniques abound: Sara sits in the sun to tan with the other image-conscious retirees -- listen closely and hear the sound of bacon sizzling on the soundtrack. Drug deals on a street corner are cut to the rhythm of a cash register ka-ching. Marion appears with three pills in her hand and asks, "Anyone want to waste some time?" Zip -- a day in one room shoots by in a high-speed blur of mixed records and done deals. Marion and Harry lie on an untidy floor, head-to-head -- the camera spirals upwards, like the near-death out-of-body experience of a particularly pure shot of heroin.

Watching "Requiem," one realizes how timid, how stupefyingly lame and predictable 99 percent of filmmakers are in comparison. "Requiem" opens a door to a whole new realm of cinematic storytelling, of perception itself. It may be that drugs are the only narrative excuse left for imaginative visual experiments, but for those who've had it up to here with both Hollywood formula and Dogma '95's deliberate amateurism, here's your fix.

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