Out of breath, dizzy with migraine frustration, and shuddering with an undeniable energy, Darren Aronofsky’s torpedo-shot through Hubert Selby Jr.’s fourth novel may be the definitive scag movie, in part because there’s no kicking the habit for Selby’s lost ones—just descent. Aronofsky shows no signs of giving up the visual spasms he exploited in pi; if anything, Requiem for a Dream ups the dosage. More expressionistically funkadelic than Trainspotting (if not as witty), Requiem comes packing something the Danny Boyle team didn’t have: a point, and one that reverbs. For Selby, dope and television are two heads of the same American-escapist ogre, and so the (by now) familiar agony of stringing out and hunting for a fix is conjoined with the plummet of the hero’s blowsy Brooklyn mom (Ellen Burstyn) into a diet-pill inferno fueled by the promise of game-show contestantship and scored by a maniacal infomercial in which the studio crowd keeps bellowing, “Be! Excited! B! E! Excited!”
Aronofsky doesn’t get by without misfires—the risk of literalizing pharmaceutically warped inner states is large, and flourishes like a perambulating refrigerator and a recurring seaside hallucination never pay off. You may not see a more self-conscious movie this decade, down to the split screens and chest-strapped cameras. Instead of heaping in Selby’s prose as narration, Aronofsky shapes the movie as one long, carefully constructed seizure—shoot-ups are fast, explosive wham-bam montages of needles, bloodstreams, and eyeballs, and the soundtrack is a percussive fury of thing-noises, like the opening of Pink Floyd’s “Money” times 20. (It’s ironic how movies about heroin tend toward hyperventilation.) Just when you think it’s going to settle into sobriety, the film jumps off another cliff.
As a trio of Brighton Beach dopeniks, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans are all subsumed by the formal hootenanny; they’re figures in a storm, scheming to buy, cut, and sell dope in order to “be on Easy Street” but quickly devolving from the handsomest junkies you ever saw to hollow-eyed wastrels. But the star of the show has to be Burstyn, if only for her perhaps naive trust in Aronofsky’s fish-eye lens and makeup team. Starting out at a mannered maternal pitch suitable for Playhouse 90, Burstyn ends up a jabbering banshee left over from Marat/Sade; though she’s never quite convincing, her ordeal is. Of course, the entire movie is contents under pressure, tear-assing toward a climactic Götterdämmerung montage split four ways, punching in between shock treatment, prison farm withdrawal, the most heinous systemic infection in movie history, and a public dance with a KY-slathered Louisville Slugger of a dildo that, though it may be a fun Saturday night for some people, is shot like it has its own circle in hell.
Iced with a genuinely felt, Springsteenian-loser-teen heartbreak, Requiem for a Dream may be an elaborate stunt, a bungee jump, but even so, it’s forceful enough to leave a rare palpitating residue. How many movies can Aronofsky make this way? Critical mass will be easy to reach, but the better question is: How many other recent American movies demand to be seen?