Thursday, 8 January 2009

Requiem For A Dream

When Darren Aronofsky started out with his second film project (his first was π), he already had garnered a cult following. It suffices to say that by the time this second film was out, there was already a buzz in avid-film-follower circles. Requiem For A Dream (henceforth shortened to RFAD) just served to intensify it.

For long, I'd been thinking about writing a film review without plot spoilers. I have experimented with that form of reviewing, as such (though not on this blog), but it occurs to me now that revealing the story does nothing to spoil the cinematic experience-- good stories necessarily do not make good films, and anyway, films that cut the mark are much more than an enactment of a superb screenplay. Cinema is (and not 'has') a language of it's own: the charm and enjoyment is in reading the story in the film's own language through the individual's eyes. A second reason for me to stick to my old habit of revealing the story is that I have found out that no review is complete (of course, according to me) without my thoughts on why certain things happened the way they did in the film. Which necessitates revealing the story-- it's odd for me to pick out a random scene from the film and ponder about it's ramifications and importance, without knowing what preceded it! I am a person who judges any matter at hand subjectively. Objective, rigid or technical finesse is not my forte, and that I frankly concede. Which, in fact, is what differentiates me from the professional movie reviewer-- he usually confines his analysis to an objective plane; I, on the other hand, take things a bit too personally (which, practically, is impossible for the pro) to be objective. To cut it short: the spoiler-free reviews I wrote looked like a mere amalgamation of adjectives to me, with personal observations that cared not to mention what induced them. Hence, for my purposes (which is in encouraging some reader to look out for a good movie), meaningless.

Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Bursytn) is an old lady living alone in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, USA. She usually spends her time gorging on delicacies that she can't resist having, and watching infomercials on televisions. Her husband, Seymour, has deceased; and her son, Harry (Jared Leto) prefers to live alone with his friend Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans). Whenever Harry comes visiting, there is usually an altercation between mother and son, and even though Sara acknowledges that her son has behavioural issues, she dismisses an old acquaintance's advice of taking help from the police to sort matters out since she thinks that Harry's just a normal young boy with his share of problems, and moreover, he's her only child. Things get bright and sunny for her one day in summer when she receives a call from a television channel that she's been shortlisted to appear for a game-show/infomercial JUICE (Join Us In Creating Excellence), the same one she religiously follows. The television addict that she is, Sara is delighted to hear the news and starts building proverbial castles in the air. She decides that she will wear the red dress from the proudest and most memorable moment in her life, Harry's graduation, on the big day. The problem however is that she is just too fat to fit into it! A friendly neighbour suggests taking the easy way out of overweight, a strict diet chart. Sara warms up to the idea though the prospect of kicking her favourite high-calorie delicacies dismays her. After only half-a-day of following the chart, she falters on her newly adopted resolution; all the same, she consoles herself with the notion that she is "thinking thin", which it seems, is the most important step in losing weight. The delicacies however refuse to leave haunting her, and she finally decides that it is too difficult for her to suddenly give her age-old ways the kick. But there must be some way out! It's the doctor. Sara is given a dose of amphetamine pills she must take thrice a day and a sedative at night. So now, she can continue gorging on her food, while still losing her pounds. All well, indeed, only until the pills begin to get the better of her...

Harry's frequent altercations with his mother are not altogether unfounded. Harry, Tyrone and Harry's girlfriend, Marion Silver (Jennifer Conelly), are all heroin-addicts. Marion is a budding fashion designer who dreams of two things: one, marrying Harry, and two, setting up a designer store. The problem being that no one has enough money for the dreams to be realised. But enough money for their new plan: the trio decide that they'll enter the drug business, and with the money profited, make it big. Tyrone often thinks of his caring and benevolent mother, and decides that he'll leave the trade once he has made enough to make his mother proud. The money keeps rolling in. Everything looks all fine and sunny for the three young friends. Harry, however, feels a nagging guilt somewhere that he must make up for all the bitterness and negligence that he has shown for so long to his mother. And so, he wants to a buy her a new present. The question is what. The answer, ironically enough, is the thing what has cocooned Sara from all sense of reality: a television. When Harry visits her, Sara is all ecstatic and happy, especially so after she comes to know that Harry has a successful business at last and a girl he wants to marry. In the course of the conversation, Sara reveals that she has been taking amphetamine pills for weight loss. Harry forbids her to continue taking them, saying that those will drive her mad and finally take her life away. Sara brushes away the suggestions saying she has found a new reason to live after receiving the call from the TV channel, and how that has driven away the emptiness of staying cooped up in a big old house with no one but herself to care for. Sara assures Harry that things will all get better now. When Harry tells her about the present, Sara breaks down into tears thinking how her son has finally become caring, knowing quite well deep within that she is fooling herself with the idea-- no gift can compensate for years of uncordial relations; not that easily! The realisation is not missed by Harry too-- and so he promises his mother that he'll come along from time to time, and perhaps bring Marion over for a meal sometime, though he's far from confident that he can keep his promise. Mother and son part for the moment in a semblance of mutual goodwill, though they can both sense the wall that still separates them. It hangs over the scene like a silent and invisible, but almost tangible, barrier.

Come fall, things suddenly start going awry. Tyrone is arrested in a drug bust-up by the police, and Harry has to spend a huge chunk of their cash reserve in bailing him out. Because there have been similar raids in the whole city, getting drugs on the street has become nearly impossible for the trio. Moreover, the cash reserve is all but empty, therefore making things doubly difficult. Tyrone, however hears a rumour that there is going to be a covert drug sale in the rear of a supermarket sometime soon. To have enough money for getting things started over again, Harry swallows his conscience and asks Marion to sleep with her therapist in exchange for money, just for once. Marion unwillingly agrees, accepting it as an sacrifice that must be had to fuel their dreams. This incident, however, marks the onset of a growing rift between the couple. Harry cannot suppress his guilt, and therefore becomes cold and distant. Marion, inspite of loving Harry, cannot forgive him for asking her to do such a thing. With the money she has earned so, Harry and Tyrone go to the rumoured spot on the day, only to find out that they have been fooled-- the suppliers have got away both with the money and the drugs.

Back in her Brighton Beach apartment, Sara is going desperate: the TV channel has not called her again, something that they had promised to do to keep her informed. The desperation coupled with the emptiness and loneliness drives her to take resort in the pills that give her a temporary boost. She visits the doctor, but he does nothing to help her growing addiction. Sara's detachment from reality and her hallucinations keep on mounting to a point when they become her worst fears. Her nervous system is affected and desperately, she starts for the office of the television channel. Realising that she is not in a stable state of mind, the people at the office arrange for Sara to be admitted to a mental asylum.

Harry and Tyrone decide to relocate to Florida where they plan to start things over. They leave Marion behind. To fend for herself, Marion now starts sleeping with people.

It's winter. On the way to Florida, Harry's arm starts wasting away due to repeated heroin injections, till it pains obnoxiously. The two friends visit a hospital, where the doctor calls the police realising that it is a case of severe drug addiction. The police have Harry hospitalized, and Tyrone is forced into a labour camp where he must fight addiction alone. Harry calls Marion one last time promising her that he'll come back soon, and apologising for all the mistakes he has committed: still knowing that he won't be able to keep his own promise. His arm has become such badly affected that it has to be amputated. Sara meanwhile fails to respond to routine psychiatric therapies and she is therefore left to face the last resort of the doctors: electroshock! Marion, on the other hand, continues degrading herself for money in sexual orgies. As a realisation of their ghastly delusions and broken dreams dawn upon them, each person draws back into a fetal position. A dream that recurred to Harry earlier-- Marion waiting in an empty pier-- comes back to him. But this time, she isn't there. Harry has hit a vast cavernous darkness. In her dream, Sara sees herself winning the game-show on television. Harry, a successful businessman married to Marion, is reconciled with his mother. As the two embrace, the crowd cheers on.

Inspite of having a linearly constructed plot, RFAD is a success because it hits the viewer in the right place-- it is bleak, oppressing and relentless in it's portrayal of addiction. It succeeds because it does not allow the viewer a chance to deviate his attention to anything but the subject-- one has the feeling of being bombarded on all sides with a torrent of questions. Suddenly one begins to question one's own dreams-- question if they are dreams, after all, or just comforting delusions that hurt very badly when they fall apart. One begins to question what exactly is an addiction: Aronofsky's portrayal does not concern itself only with drugs, you see. Food and television or even an obsession with a wish, things we hardly ever consider fatally harmful suddenly start taking dark and bleak shades. RFAD traps the user in a claustrophobically small cubicle of very disturbing thoughts and makes him face demons he'd rather avoid. It's the overall uneasiness (as somebody I know described the movie: "It's moving, and when I say moving, I mean the twitching, schizoid kind of movement") that contributes to the film's triumph. For something dark and brooding, things rarely do get better. In a way, this is the cinematic equivalent of, say, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four; so there you get an idea of the exact kind of emotions that go on in one's head after the film has ended. The similarity does not, however, end here. Both are divided into three parts, and both concern themselves with an idea that slowly builds up over time and gives a temporary sense of well-being, until it is brutally shattered and destroyed.

Now on to some technical aspects: the movie wouldn't be so admirable had it not been for the treatment it received. The camerawork and cinematography is top-notch, as is the editing. Instead of shooting protracted scenes, the film is shot in extremely short phases, and constructed by juxtaposing such extremely small montages one after the other. The use of time-lapse photography is also frequent. These heighten the growing uneasiness and tension and offers the viewer a chance to judge the slow change in the psychological state of the characters in a comparatively small bracket of realtime. The implementation of split-scenes and the ingenious idea of shooting from either too close, or too far, sketches the characters as individuals alienated from society and reality, while presenting the viewer a chance to simultaneously observe two characters or situations. Also, rare is the film that uses the background score so efficiently, and keep in mind that this is no thriller. Clint Mansell's score is chilling and haunting-- it deepens the intensity of the film manifold. In fact, so good is it, that Aronofsky often uses it even while the characters are speaking. As the final down-spiral during winter is portrayed, the score reaches a hysterical crescendo. Too good! Never since Ennio Morricone's composition for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has any composer come up with such a remarkable score (not in my eyes). The acting is, surely, good; but the actors don't make the film this commendable (though Burstyn deserves special mention). At the hands of another director and the same set of actors, it would have been just another film with a good intention. The kudos must therefore go to Aronofsky (even in his choice of the composer: in fact, Mansell's career in the film industry was launched with Aronofsky's first). Another thing that I must mention: the use of the infomercial JUICE as a plot-device with much effect. Sara has a sense of apparent well-being when she pictures herself standing on the stage wearing her fine red dress and the crowd cheering her on. The same crowd, however, turns to her worst fears when the hallucinations become nightmarish: the laughing and jeering make her paranoid. Kind of reminiscent of Two Minutes Hate in its depiction of hysteria/paranoia induced by a crowd that thinks and acts alike, which was a plot-device in Nineteen Eighty Four.

Requiem For A Dream is a film that is a bit hard to stomach for some, but one that gets its message across in a perfect way (if such a thing as perfection can indeed be achieved). So watch it!


Tanmoy said...

This film gave me goosebumps and sleepless night. I do agree the way the Director has used his camera and creativity to get the message across is commendable.

These things which have troubled the Western society and so true for us too. When this film was made then perhaps game shows were not their on Indian television. Look at now, how children are made to appear in such trashes. If that explains the lunacy for fame, then the loneliness experienced by the older people as depicted by the film has always been an issue which we have preferred not to discuss here in India. We have not discussed it because we hide such issues in our closets.

Having said that, I found the depiction of drug abuse, disturbing. It is not a flaw though in the film but I am a bit weak hearted when it comes to drugs and its fallouts.

By the way, recently I also watched the cinematic version of 1984 (starring Richard Burton) but it was nothing compared to the book.

Sudipto Basu said...

Dear Tanmoy Da,
I know that the depiction of drug abuse in this film is very disturbing (the whole winter phase is, in fact), but in a way, that is the reason I love this film so. One gets the impression of being woken up from the slumber of comfortable existence, and being thoroughly ravaged, as though by a storm. Which is what makes the lasting impression.

By the way, regarding your observation about game-shows: I think that children should be spared, at the very least. What with some maniacal parents driving the notion that one must win at all costs! The greatest showmen have suffered from the constant public gaze and lack of privacy which stardom brings along with it. Really unfair to expose children these psychological pressures (which, quite probably, they don't realise at the moment owing to their naivete). The film, however, was not against game-shows as such-- it just wanted to show that the obsession with anything can affect someone very badly.

Regarding Sara's loneliness, I guess she could have tackled it in a considerably mature and better way (like, maybe, reading or listening to music). Of course, the issue of children alienating their parents must be addressed (I don't imply anything on the contrary in my previous statement).

Tanmoy said...

You are right Sudipto. Too many people in this world don't have a world which is not dependent on someone else. That is why, you would see a professional fears prolonged vacation, retired people fear retirement. It is sad but true that most human beings are unaccustomed to being in their own company. Old age grips them much harder because they become physically incapable.

The film undoubtedly did not directly criticize a game show but it definitely tries to portray how easier road to fame / recognition / success can lead up to doomsday.

Sudipto Basu said...

Thanks to Kaushik-da for pointing out a flaw in the text. :)

P.S.-- Where's your comment?