Monday, August 11, 2008

The Throat-Punching Subtlety You'd Expect from a Film with the Word 'Requiem' in the Title

Sometime toward the end of high school, I, like virtually everyone I knew, developed a taste for anti-heroic, hateful, morose, alienating films that exposed just how horrible the world is. After emerging from the fibs and fairytales of childhood, opting to watch two hours of darkness appeared just so enlightened of us. After 15 years of watching that kind of content, you should be bored, depressed and probably disgusted.

If you're not, Darren Aaronofky's Requiem for a Dream presents the perfect panacea. Coming off Pi's phenomenally dull force-fed artiness, Requiem proved he was no one-trick pony by similarly bombarding the audience with a series of one-dimensional one-note elements. The light in outdoor scenes fuzzes and diffuses like a 1970s Kodak moment, while other scenes compress and distort with funhouse mirror effects, as if to suggest either:
a. You, the viewer, are too stupid to understand that drug addictions distort reality, so perhaps you need this visually reinforced in virtually every scene.
b. The shittier it looks, the more authentically artistic you will think it is.
In fact, it's difficult to think of any respect in which this movie neglects to insult your intelligence. The plot is an obvious starting point, the most egregious example being when Harry (Jared Leto) is denied medical treatment by a doctor who then turns him over to the police, while Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is somehow imprisoned for the crime of being in the hospital's waiting room. Both scenes are so fatuous and unrealistic that it's obvious they exist solely to take the two hours of narrative Hell on Earth and suck them into a deeper nightmarish "DRUGS—BAAAAD!" dreamscape, no matter how bizarrely improbable. Indeed, the movie lacks any sense of levity whatsoever, as if suggesting that these people's finding even a moment of happiness from drug use (after the requisite opening five minutes of happier "BEFORE:" narrative) would confuse your tiny mind into thinking the movie advocates drug addiction.

As it is, you cannot find a reason to believe why anyone except the mother (Ellen Burstyn) would enjoy drugs in the first place. You could explode the reality the movie creates by having a single person in the background tell a single joke and have another person laugh at it as if he were enjoying himself. That alone would undermine everything the film tries so cheerlessly and so hard to establish. But good luck trying. Even if the average male viewer has abandoned any attempt to take the movie seriously on its own terms, it still manages to strip whatever residual biological pleasure he might find it looking at the picture shown above.

The soundtrack offers a similar relentlessness, thrumming and pounding without pause throughout almost the whole of the movie. Its tone shares the one-dimensionality of the plot, frequently repeating the same string quartet passages and electronic beat. The absence of diversity to it is a pity, because it's probably the best part of the film. But the repetition reinforces the film's unwillingness for you to consider anything other than horror, misery, abuse, etc. Worse, the soundtrack mix overpowers long stretches of dialogue, a mix that either forces you to listen to the same notes THUNDERING over and over or risk missing whole interactions. In the case of the mother's muttering obviously important establishing comments behind a door in the first scene, key dialogue is nearly inaudible, drowning under music that you're going to hear for the next two hours anyway. These mixing problems don't belong in any movie made in the past 30 years, and certainly not outside the brassy insane blaring and silent dialogue of pre-1990s BBC TV production, or an action scene in the original Star Trek.

Action might be the one thing the movie has quite a bit of, but the film comes off as unwilling to allow you to process or enjoy it. Despite shootings, prostitution, chases, prison violence and drug deals, the viewer gets to experience very little without obnoxious mediation from the camera. When Marion (Jennifer Connelly) prostitutes herself the first time, the horror for her remains off camera, then later the camera reels around her, as if she's holding it while spinning, as if mute horror is the most important thing for you to feel, but that you cannot be trusted to feel it without tilt-a-whirl effects jazzing up the significance. A similar scene features Tyrone running from a shooting as if he were holding the camera, making a frightening race for his life turn into cartoonish galumphing. Even the drug use and drug deals flash by with gimmicky blinks, with one-second-per-shot glimpses of dilating eyes, racing bloodstreams, boiling dope, etc. If Michael Bay were a heroin addict, this is how he'd make you shoot up.

Perhaps all this monolithic, unceasing unhappiness possesses some intrinsic value, but it's difficult to see what. I hate to sound like I'm echoing some sort of middle-American Philistinism by wondering, "Why can't all movies be nice stories?" But at some point in your life, after having familiarized yourself with the numerous horrors the world presents, it's probably fair to elect to miss out on some movies that allow escape only back into them. It's your free time, after all. If the escape exhibits novel artistic complexities, a brief visitation with the nightmarish doubtless merits suffering through an unhappy ending. But this movie doesn't do that.

The world it inhabits is so unremittingly horrible that you can hardly blame someone for succumbing to addiction to check out of it. But addiction, too, is so horrible that you can't understand why someone wouldn't have just shot themselves in the face to begin with. The comprehensive joylessness insults the viewer with a universe unlike almost anything he or she could have even read about in a newspaper. The soundtrack reinforces the message of despair so loudly and incessantly as if afraid you might forget it. And the cinematography effaces the action while gaudily stylizing the mundane for no real reason.

If we lived in a world where somehow almost everyone in America had failed to notice the message that addiction is bad for you, it'd be safe to say that making this movie was very necessary. But we don't, so anyone's watching it isn't either.