Don't you just hate it when a TV news anchor introduces a story and then warns you that what follows is graphic nature and might not be suitable for all viewers? I certainly do, as you're suddenly torn between watching in morbid fascination about what might follow and quickly turning the channel before you see anything.
It's the equivalent of passing what looks like a horrendous car wreck on the side of the road. While there's always the possibility that those involved survived relatively unscathed, the likelihood remains that you might see carnage that will forever be etched somewhere in your cerebral cortex.
While writer/director Darren Aronofsky's sophomore effort, "Requiem For A Dream," isn't really filled with that much carnage - although there are some gross and/or unsavory moments - it's one of those harrowing pictures that's unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch, yet you can't help yourself from doing so. That said, consider this your TV anchor warning.
Of course, one's fascination of watching the film doesn't stem solely from a morbid curiosity about what horrors might be witnessed, although that certainly will play some part for some viewers. Instead, it's the incredibly imaginative and clever way in which Aronofsky has crafted and then presented the movie that makes it one of the most visually entrancing films of the year.
As was the case in his equally mesmerizing but disturbing freshman effort, "Pi," Aronofsky demonstrates an uncanny visual sense that puts most every music video turned feature film director to shame. While they're all proficient at showcasing the latest cinematic bells and whistles, such effects usually exist only for the moment and as a way for such directors to draw attention to themselves and their self-proclaimed abilities.
Like the Wachowski brothers who shot the similarly imaginative "Bound" and the better known "The Matrix," however, Aronofsky uses such effects to further the stories and enhance the emotion of any given scene. The end result of doing so, while undeniably somewhat showy, is incredibly mesmerizing, hooking the viewer like an unknowing fish and then dragging them along for the ride, whether they really want to go or not.
Much like that horrendous car wreck on the side of the road or the disturbing images on the TV news, you simply can't take your eyes off this spectacle. Based on Hubert Selby, Jr.'s 1978 novel of the same name (the author who also penned "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and served as the film's co-screenwriter), the story certainly isn't uplifting or happy by any means as it showcases several characters' harrowing descent into addiction, despair and even madness. In fact, if there ever was a film to serve as a strong and effective anti-drug picture, this is certainly it.
That said, if there's one major fault to the film - beyond being unpleasant to watch from a human standpoint - it's that it's essentially a one-note picture without much complexity as far as story goes. In essence, it's a look at four unhappy people progressively swirling around and around inside the great toilet of life before they're sucked into the abyss.
It's certainly a testament to Aronofsky, his visual approach at telling the story, and the efforts of his talented cast that the film manages to be palatable at all. Jared Leto ("American Psycho," "Girl, Interrupted"), Jennifer Connelly ("Waking the Dead," "Inventing the Abbotts") and Marlon Wayans ("Scary Movie," "Senseless") all deliver strong and compelling performances from what are nothing much more than sketchily drawn characters. While we barely know anything about them, the trio of performers manages to make those characters pop off the screen and seem real and dimensional.
The real standout, however, is Ellen Burstyn ("The Yards," "The Exorcist") as the lonely widow who sees one last chance at happiness only to have it fall prey to her addiction to diet pills and the desire for something better in her life. While it's not a happy or cheerful performance by any means, it's one that you probably won't soon forget and it may just earn the actress her sixth Oscar nomination.
Despite the strong and often terrific performances, the true star of the show is Aronofsky's direction and the film's overall technical look and combined efforts. While many films have dealt with drug use and addiction, I don't recall one that so imaginatively represented the taking and then effects of drugs on the user.
Rather than showing the standard one-shot view of someone shooting up, snorting coke or smoking a joint, Aronofsky and editor Jay Rabinowitz ("Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Affliction") - who should get nominated just for the immense amount of incredible work that went into this production - visually symbolize the process in a rapid series of imaginatively photographed and tightly edited shots that's amazing to behold.
The same holds true for what I'll call the "chest cam" for lack of any better technological label, where the actors occasionally wear cameras mounted on their chests and pointed at their faces. The result - occasionally seen in other films - has a weird look where the character seemingly remains motionless while the background behind them spins and twirls as if out of control.
While that might sound like just a neat visual gimmick thrown in just for the fun of it, the disorienting effect it creates not only symbolizes what the given character is going through at the moment, but makes the viewer feel something of the same way. It's a brilliant technique, but that and the rest of the film's eye-popping visuals shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who saw "Pi" (that, like this film, isn't for everyone's tastes, but is nothing short of outstanding).
Although I normally don't give depressing films high marks simply due to their effect on one's mood and outlook on life, this film is just so captivating to watch and contains such great performances and innovative and imaginative filmmaking that it deserves a strong recommendation. Clearly not for all moviegoers - and probably not many at that - but just the right touch for hearty cinematic souls who love and appreciate outstanding filmmaking, "Requiem For A Dream" is a must-see for those who want to witness a talented director at work. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.