Credit: Artisan Entertainment/Courtesy Everett

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream may be one of the most disturbing movies ever made (it could upset some viewers even more than A Clockwork Orange or Natural Born Killers did), yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off it. Based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., the movie, a full-throttle mind- bender, is hypnotically harrowing and intense, a visual and spiritual plunge into the seduction and terror of drug addiction. Aronofsky interconnects the tales of four desperate, outer-borough New York nobodies who fall prey, in different ways, to the slavery of substance abuse. Three of them are hipster junkies, but the movie, in all likelihood, will be best remembered for Ellen Burstyn’s role as a sad, matronly Brighton Beach yenta who gets hooked on diet pills. Aronofsky, in a virtuoso act of bad-trip perversity, literally turns her world inside out, fusing the audience with a soul that has lost its contours (but not its desire to be loved).

So much for the youth-chic glamour of drugs! Some viewers, and more than a few critics, are likely to accuse Requiem for a Dream of being ”manipulative,” of dressing up primal-kick exploitation voyeurism as gutter art. In a year, however, when American pop culture is being called on the carpet for its violence and extremity, Aronofsky has made one of the rare dark-as-midnight movies that finds its unholy essence — and, in a strange way, its morality — by going ”too far,” by depicting the unspeakable without a safety net of restraint. As Requiem unspools, one’s dread surges forward with a kind of cathartic and terrified amazement. Those willing to take the journey may feel as if they’re not so much trapped as hooked — addicted to the images that are addling the characters’ brains.

This is only Aronofsky’s second feature, after [Pi] (1998), the low-budget indie novelty hit of flashy, Kafka-goes-downtown paranoia, but as a filmmaker he has now made a dazzling, bravura leap. He has developed a powerfully unsettling style of freakout sensuality, complete with it-came-from-the-id hallucinations, nerve-twitching spatial-temporal zigzags, stroboscopic montages of ritual drug use (syringe!/sigh!/dilated pupil!), and a clinical shock-cut intensity that makes you feel as if the characters’ psyches had merged with your own. Aronofsky was recently tapped to direct the fifth Batman film; if he brings anything approaching this level of creative ferocity to the reimagination of that series, he could help reenergize mainstream movies.

Jared Leto, all sinew and pale skin, has the pivotal role of Harry Goldfarb, a Brooklyn thrill seeker in his early 20s whose only ambition is to shoot up as often as possible. There’s an authentic scruffy anonymity to the way that Harry and his buddy Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) laugh and shimmy to a hip-hop groove as the heroin gets a grip on their blood. The two hatch a plan to hustle dope on the street, all so they can purchase a stash of pure heroin, and the film gets us right on their wavelength of snaky, urban-underworld pleasure and deceit. Harry also has a girlfriend, Marion, played by Jennifer Connelly, whose flash-eyed voluptuous beauty is, for the first time, matched by her radiant command as an actress. Marion, a pampered girl who wants to design clothes, gets hooked on smack as well, and the gradual transformation she undergoes, from caressing lover to selfish, clawing dope fiend to dead-hearted prostitute willing to do anything, is a slow descent into pure degraded madness.

At crucial points, each of the three figures is viewed — pinned — by a fixed camera as they scramble, against a herky-jerky background, to escape some awful destiny. The technique may look familiar (from videos, Spike Lee films, a drunken-party shot in Mean Streets), but I’ve never seen it used the way that Aronofsky does — to suggest that the characters, through drugs, are severed from their identities, to the point that they appear to be surveying their own self-destruction, as if they were figures in a live video- game. Requiem for a Dream may be the first movie to fully capture the way that drugs dislocate us from ourselves.

It’s that perception that powers the extraordinary tale of Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn). Eager to fit into her old red dress, the one her late husband once mooned over, Sara goes to a quack diet doctor, who gives her multicolored pills, and the tangled power surge of uppers and downers begins to interact with her hopes and desires, her fixation on the refrigerator, her habitual viewing of a rah-rah TV infomercial guru. The spiral of surreal paranoia becomes almost too much to bear. Yet Burstyn, in a fearless performance, never lets us forget how deeply Sara’s addiction is rooted in the piercing cul-de-sac of her empty-nest loneliness.

Does the movie go too far? In the final montage of devastation, which intercuts the characters’ horrific fates, Aronofsky lays on his art with didactic brutality. (I truly could have lived without the electroshock.) In at least one of these segments, however, the movie attains a kind of queasy greatness: We watch as Marion performs at a private sex show, and her willing dehumanization is dramatized, in discreet flash cuts, with a present-tense nightmare intimacy that leaves us speechless. At that moment, we see a character, once alive, who has now abandoned the dream of herself. A

Requiem for a Dream
  • Movie
  • 102 minutes