Welcome to Take Two, the series that’s big enough to hold up its hands and say “I was wrong.”
From your first watch to your second, has a movie gone from marvellous to meh? Has an initial viewing ever left you cold, only to later warm the cockles of your heart? Have you ever been so stubborn, “anti-mainstream” and cantankerous that you’ve point-blank refused to admit that a certain film has any merit at all whilst everyone else claims it’s the cinematic second-coming? Then you’ve come to the right place.
With Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! out in cinemas, it seemed the perfect time to give a second take to the film which broke him as the avant-garde director du jour: Requiem for a Dream.
2000 was a bleak year for cinema. Not in terms of lack of interesting and engaging films on release – as they were in abundance – but more in terms of the issues on the table. Alongside Requiem for a Dream, Memento and American Psycho also tinkered with the mind’s perceptions and the bounds of reality as well as addictions (in one form or another).
THE FIRST TAKE
Whilst the aforementioned films had moments of humour, hindsight has Requiem for a Dream as a tough old watch. The story of four drug users of whom addiction gets the better, is unrelenting, shocking and gruesomely graphic; a calling card for Darren Aronofsky’s distinctive directorial flair and appetite for harrowing subject matter.
Looking back a few years previously, Trainspotting arguably felt like the glorification of drug addiction. Sure, there are tragic deaths and near misses but there are also out and out belly laughs to be had too. By comparison, Requiem for a Dream was just dour! Even their highs made you wonder what they got out of shooting up; it seemed like nothing you couldn’t achieve with a litre of Smirnoff.
The star of the film, though, was that score. Clint Mansell’s hauntingly grandiose audio accompaniment incorporates classical strings and Industrial metal samples and has arguably grown to outshine the film. Since (mis)used for everything from The X Factor to the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer, it never sounds as apposite as it does over Aronofsky’s film.
The breakout performance, however, is Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb. The news of an Oscar nomination for the ex-Exorcist star preceded the viewing of the film, but being an actor I was unfamiliar with, and in a shameful moment of ageism, expectations were low. These were far surpassed, nay smashed. The depiction of her dramatic weight loss – in a bid to fit into her glory days red dress – steals the Slimmer of the Week award from Bale, McConaughey and Hanks.
Honourable mentions go to Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly. Leto, who was fresh out of Fight Club and an able leading man, but a far cry from the method man he’s since become. As Sara Goldfarb’s son Harry, his skag-induced end was akin to Peter Weller in RoboCop: all missing limbs and lying at the mercy of medical staff. Connelly was bae back in the day, but the graphic sexual aspects of her performance left the audience horrified rather than horny. This lingered long in the mind for all the wrong reasons as she is prostituted and degraded to an unimaginable degree.
With that in mind…I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to the second take.
THE SECOND TAKE
From the off there’s more than just shocks to take away from Requiem for a Dream. As we join Harry stealing his mother’s TV set to pawn for smack, we’re thrown straight into some stylish split-screen verbal, allowing each actor to emote every inch of the argument from their side of the door. Mansell‘s score stalks the film throughout, from incidental tinkering to audio assault. In fact, Lux Aeterna is all over the film. No wonder it haunts you for days.
There’s also a little light relief to be found: Goldfarb’s kerb-side sunbathing social circle provide heart as well as humour and seeing Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and Harry hopped up, laughing and losing their shit is infectiously funny. The jump-cuts as Goldfarb’s Atkins-esque dinners disappear are initially comical but soon lose their appeal as we see her struggling to cope.
Whilst on an editing tip, Aronofsky coined the term “hip hop montage” for the quick-cuts he used to portray the ritual of drug preparation. Each arm-full of heroin is prefixed by such quick-cuts: the needle, the spoon, a dilated pupil. It’s impressive the first time (and I said Trainspotting glamorised drugs), but, like chasing the dragon, it’s never quite as good again. Similarly, the fast-motion drug scenes now feel as clichéd as their biggest fan from the ’90s, the stadium rock videos where the stage is constructed and torn down by an army of roadies, all in double-quick time.
It goes without saying that the climax is as upsetting and uncomfortable as it ever was. Connelly’s “ass-to-ass” scene is the most repugnant in the film. As a man, watching the baying mob of men throw money and jeer feels a shameful spectacle, but one her character seems destined to repeat. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Harry at his eventual amputation, as he’s an appalling example of a human being throughout, although it’s telling that Tyrone’s ending (going cold turkey in a county jail) feels like he’s getting off lightly.
Finally, Sara is the only character you feel complete empathy for: dragged into drug addiction through relatively humble aspirations. Her urge to return to a simpler time – with her husband and pre-addicted son – resonates with anyone who’s ever seen an old picture of themselves and wondered what the hell happened. Her eventual electroconvulsive therapy makes R.P McMurphy’s time with Nurse Ratched look like a spa weekend.
THE FINAL CUT: REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
What Aronofsky does to coerce such nuanced performances out of his actors is a mystery, but evidence of how much he invests in them. That his methods have since seen career-best performances from Natalie Portman, Mickey Rourke, and (reportedly) Jennifer Lawrence speaks volumes. It’s worth mentioning that Wayans, yes, him off of White Chicks, is also impressive enough in his dramatic role, that it’s almost a shame he hasn’t done more.
Requiem for a Dream’s influence can be felt through the familiarity of its flourishes. Is it your go-to movie on a Saturday night? God, no. It’s not even your Sunday night. What it is, though, is a skilled showing of style and substance, flamboyant in its delivery but uncompromising in what it’s delivering.
Heroin detox reportedly takes five days. One week later, Requiem for a Dream is still in my system.
Which films do you think deserve a Take Two? Let us know which and why in the comments and see if you can change our mind.