It’s a brisk may morning in Brooklyn, a short stroll away from the gut-grinding thrill rides of Coney Island, and director Darren Aronofsky is shooting a scene with a bunch of old ladies. They’re gabbing away in beach chairs against the wall of an apartment building, with floppy bags and big straw hats, zinc oxide on their noses and curlers in their hair. The Exorcist‘s Ellen Burstyn, barely recognizable in a fat suit and frizzy orange ‘do, scurries past the women to grab a piece of mail. ”Over and over, same ting,” muses a bystander in Brighton Beach’s most common accent — Russian. ”Lady getting envelope!”
”What’s the name of the movie?” wonders another.
Requiem for a Dream, she is told. ”Will it be like 8 1/2?” she asks, dropping a surprise Fellini reference. ”Very dreamlike?”
Well, no. Not unless your nightly sojourns include images of shock treatment, rotting limbs, carnivorous refrigerators, and a swan dive into sexual degradation. Yeah, this little setup with the grannies looks innocuous, but once Aronofsky patches together his gruesome adaptation of the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream will make you feel as though you’ve shoved your brain into a blender and hit ”liquefy.” Or, to use the director’s own simile: ”This film is like jumping out of an airplane and halfway down you realize you forgot your parachute. And it ends three minutes after you hit the ground.”
Wham! Pow! Splaaat?! So this is the guy who’s busting into Bruce Wayne’s manor for the next Batman movie? While some critics have hailed Requiem as a Clockwork Orange-style shock-cinema landmark, others have dismissed it as flashy limousine nihilism. Audiences apparently are willing to take the plunge: The movie earned $32,000 per screen its first weekend in limited run in New York. (It’ll slowly build toward a wider release throughout November.)
Set in a skanky, peeling hood that’s light-years away from Joel Schumacher’s slick, cartoon Gotham, Requiem follows a quartet of downward-spiraling addicts: Burstyn is a widow hooked on diet pills and self-help infomercials, while Jared Leto (as her son), Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connelly play dope fiends. You may wonder — understandably, in the wake of Trainspotting, Drugstore Cowboy, Permanent Midnight, High Art, Jesus’ Son, and Pulp Fiction — whether you’ve already overdosed on the indie jones for needles. Even Artisan, the studio behind Requiem, had initial reservations.
After Aronofsky’s debut feature, [Pi], made a splash at Sundance 1998, he signed a deal with Artisan. But when the director, a Selby devotee since Harvard, announced that he’d follow up p with the author’s dark-as-tar druggie phantasmagoria, Artisan blinked. ”They said no, and I said, ‘Well, you don’t have a choice,”’ Aronofsky says, wolfing down sturgeon at a Russian restaurant on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, close to where he grew up. Amir Malin, Artisan’s CEO, recalls it this way: ”What we had talked to Darren about was making a more inherently commercial film as the follow-up to [Pi].” But Aronofsky had his heart set on Requiem. ”We told him, ‘When you finish the script, show it to us,”’ Malin says. ”And he did. He said, ‘Look, I’m making this film next. You’re either with me or without me.’ And we said, ‘We’re with you — along the lines that we won’t finance the film 100 percent.’ ”