“And the Academy Award for Best Half of a Movie goes to “Requiem For a Dream” – the second half.” If only the Oscars bestowed such recognition, Darren Aronofsky would surely claim the prize. How else to celebrate a film that begins as an artsy Nine Inch Nails video and ends as an artistic work of genius? Not to say that Aronofsky changes his time-warped camerawork and cocaine-cutting editing style from start to finish (he’s nothing if not consistent). In fact, this is precisely where the problem lies.
“Requiem For A Dream”, in the tradition of the hallucinogenic cinematography of “Trainspotting” and the fast-forward editing of the Ray Liotta character’s breakdown scene in “Goodfellas”, is a film that attempts to shoot from inside a junkie’s head. Though I consider “Requiem For A Dream” far superior to “Trainspotting” in artistic vision, and the last half of the film close on the heels of Scorsese’s Mafia masterpiece in terms of sheer intensity, it just doesn’t work as well as those movies. And the difference rests in the mark of the auteur. When one thinks of the word “auteur,” the word “consistency” soon follows. Darren Aronofsky is definitely an auteur. Both “Pi” and “Requiem For A Dream” have a distinct style and feel that makes them each “A Darren Aronofsky Film.” His pacing is consistently fast. He tells tales from his characters’ often-unreliable viewpoints. Martin Scorsese, however, is a far more seasoned auteur. The contrast between the kid and the veteran can best be summed up in Scorsese’s ability to know when to be inconsistent. There comes a time in every filmmaker’s life when the auteur style that the audience associates with the director just doesn’t lend itself to the script. “Raging Bull” and “The Age of Innocence” both undoubtedly bear the Martin Scorsese signature, yet they are shot in completely different ways. Like a painter who uses every color to create a work completely unique, Scorsese uses a wide variety of camera techniques and editing styles to shape his vision. Aronofsky, however, like in his debut film “Pi”, seems always to be working in black-and-white (or, more accurately, fast and warped).
The main problem with “Requiem For A Dream” is twofold. Firstly, chop-chop editing and unusual cinematography that calls attention to itself only work when something important, deep and meaningful is happening in the script. This is definitely the case in the last half of the film – and the reason Aronofsky’s style fits flawlessly with the script. From the time the Jared Leto and Marlan Wayans characters leave for Florida until the final shot, all the characters descend rapidly into their own drug-induced hell. Aronofsky’s style serves to highlight the out-of-control freefall these characters are experiencing. My favorite shot of the film involves Jennifer Connolly’s character, curled up on a couch at the end, cuddling her dope bag like a teddy bear, the camera overhead pulling back to cuddle the character in the sanctity of the frame. The scene works because it is a poignant moment in the story.
Unfortunately, this same style when used at the beginning of the film (before the characters have actually gone off the deep end) makes “Requiem For A Dream” resemble nothing more than a cheesy, music video. Why? Because Aronofsky’s jerky, stop-and-go pacing is used pointlessly. Not too damn much is going on in the first half of the movie when you think about it. We’re getting to know the different characters, what’s driving them to drugs, how they interact with one another. The script is slow – and Aronofsky’s style becomes at odds with the story. Instead of letting us just spend a quiet moment with a character, we get hit with frequent montages of dollar bills, dope and an eye. This is just a long, artsy way of saying “character is getting high now.” Couldn’t we just watch the Jared Leto character shoot up real quick and use the extra time to let Ellen Burstyn’s face tell the story? The characters get high throughout the movie. Getting high is not a “big moment.” The montage sequences (scored to the best theme song I’ve heard in years) are as beautiful – and as meaningless – as a David Fincher video. Artsy becomes artistic if the choice is made to signal an important moment in the script. Otherwise, artsy is just another word for pretentious.
The second problem with “Requiem For A Dream” is, quite simply (Bill Burroughs aside), that junkies and their viewpoints are pretty boring. The makers of “Trainspotting” knew this all too well – which is why they chose to use the hallucinatory scenes sparingly. “Trainspotting” works because it saves those “junkie moments,” sprinkles them across the film so that they become more potent. Aronofsky, by contrast, seems to want the audience to overdose on his style before the film is half over. Instead, the audience begins to build up a tolerance, requiring a greater and greater fix. The last half of the film, while brilliant, would have been even more shocking and disturbing if the first half were shot less erratically. Yes, junkies are erratic, but even unpredictability becomes tedious, monotonous and predictable after ninety minutes. If Scorsese had shot all of Ray Liotta’s scenes in a manic way I doubt “Goodfellas” would have been the same revered film that it is. A master like Scorsese knows that every downward spiral has its own pacing, its own speed. He knows how to use the infinite shades of gray.
Review originally published with the "Reel Roundtable"