No less an authority than William S. Burroughs had a phrase for the spiritual vacuum temporarily filled by self-obliterating drugs: "the algebra of need." The basic formula: The emptier your life, the more you need things (denial, self-delusion, dope) to fill it, until all that's left is an insatiable hunger for the very commodity that will destroy you. No recent film examines the madness and wasted humanity at the core of such cold equations more unflinchingly than "Requiem for a Dream," director Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to his metaphysical sci-fi Pi.
In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, we meet Harry (Jared Leto), a fledgling junkie, and his bereaved, widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a woman in self-imposed exile from her life. Along with best pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), Harry plans to make a drug deal that'll land them all on Easy Street. At the same time, Sara becomes obsessed with escaping her nowhereland life by appearing on a TV game show.
"Requiem" is based on a novel by the king of depressive American letters, Hubert Selby Jr. ("Last Exit to Brooklyn"), so things go to shit with clockwork precision. By the time Harry, Tyrone and Marion become full-blown dope fiends, a citywide drug shortage cuts off supplies. Sara, trying to shave off a few pounds and years for her game-show debut, becomes addicted to diet pills and begins to slowly lose her mind.
Aronofsky's obsessive stylistic flash, which often consumed the story in "Pi," becomes in "Requiem" an integral part of his storytelling. When the film's lost souls take drugs, they do so in a frenzied montage of micro-close-ups of fluids bubbling through tubes, their eyes dilating in time-lapse photography, leading to still shots of the users laid out like members of the living dead. (This montage, shown before every shoot-up, could be viewed as repetitive. But then, so is addiction.) Brighton Beach is filmed as though seen through the eyes of people who live in the dark: overexposed, blurry, unreal. The most horrific thing is that Harry, Marion, Tyrone and Sara are incredibly likable characters, making their descent almost intolerably painful to watch.
At the heart of this hell is Burstyn's brave performance as Sara. We're used to seeing young people go junk-crazy, but the sight of Sara, a 60-something woman, plummeting into the abyss is nearly unbearable. Almost as acutely unsettling is Connelly's turn as Marion. At first she seems like the film's token pretty girl, but she reveals a quiet intelligence that incrementally demeans and systematically destroys her.
In a preface to the book's new edition, Aronofsky describes his film as a "monster movie," with the monster being payback for buying into an American Dream that says that happiness comes from without (consumable products, represented here as dope) rather than from within. Whether you agree doesn't matter; in this year of cinematic Velveeta, "Requiem" is a slice of grittily humane truth. It is one of the few possibly great films in this moribund year.