The amusement park gone to seed is one of the great American metaphors, a vaguely Catholic conceit with a subtext of Yeah, baby, have your fun--but all falls to dust, and you're gonna have to answer for your Tilt-A-Whirl ways. Bruce Springsteen made a monument of Asbury Park, but the Mount Rushmore of failing carnival towns is Coney Island, with artists from proto-beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti ("Coney Island of the Mind") to post-beat punk Lou Reed ("Coney Island Baby") having basked in its sad sparkle.
Now add Darren Aronofsky to that list. The 31-year-old writer-director of 1998's hyperkinetic Pi grew up in the seaside South Brooklyn 'hood, and for his sophomore feature, he has collaborated with Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby Jr. to film the novelist's Requiem for a Dream, which is set there. But where Selby's Coney Island dissolved in the pinpoint-pupil perspective of his druggy narrative, Aronofsky's skeletal roller coasters and neon-blanched food stalls loom large, haunting his vision like the Ghost of Hanukkah Past.
It's a fitting device for a director whose films unspool like chains of thrill-ride money shots. Pi was texturally stunning, shot entirely on high-contrast black-and-white reversal stock and hurtled along by a twitchy drill 'n' bass soundtrack (spearheaded by Pop Will Eat Itself's Clint Mansell), a barrage of rapid-fire jump-cuts, and various vertiginous point-of-view shots taken from a camera rigged directly to the lead actor's body. If the ambitious story line of a genius mathemetician on the run from Brooklyn Hasidim and Manhattan bankers who want the magic numbers in his head fell apart by the end, the visual rush largely made up for it.
Requiem simultaneously develops the debut's strengths and weaknesses, both of them tied to the film language that Aronofsky, Pi cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and Jim Jarmusch editor Jay Rabinowitz develop to trace the downward spiral of a quartet of addicts: Harry (Jared Leto), his lover Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his mom Sara (Ellen Burstyn), and his pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Back once again are what Aronofsky has auteurishly referred to as "hip-hop montages"--recurring patterns of visual breakbeats that build a strange rhythmic tension. In Pi it was the unfastening of door locks and the gulping of pills; here, it's the consumption of various drugs, mainly heroin: the flick of a lighter, a pinch of cotton soaking up dope in a bottlecap, a scrimmage of blood cells, the constriction of a pupil, the expiration of a breath. I can't recall a movie with a more visceral depiction of drug use, both in its fetishization of the attendant ritual and in the way it punctuates the villainous passage of time between doses.
You might even say that Aronofsky's greatest gift is his cinematic timekeeping. Although Mansell returns with a hybrid electro-soundtrack featuring the Kronos Quartet, DJ beat science is still a ruling force. While Selby's story is set in the Seventies, this Requiem is updated to feature state-of-the-art Technics turntables spinning out 21st-century rhythms in bedrooms, kitchens, wherever. And like Pi the film builds to a ravelike crescendo that again involves a power tool, and about which I will only add that some viewers at the screening I attended bolted for the doors before it concluded. (Groove it ain't.)
With so much screaming directorial technique, what's an actor to do but work it? Leto and Connelly make the prettiest pair of dope-crossed lovers since Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch in Drugstore Cowboy, trading the latter couple's cool, faintly comic noir-isms for the true hearts whose progressive stilling is painful to watch. Marlon Wayans is impressive as an earnest junkie climbing the anti-corporate ladder and haunted by Hallmark memories of a loving mom. And the buzz on Ellen Burstyn's supporting turn is justified: Her performance as a lonely Jewish widow addicted to chocolate, TV diet shows, and, eventually, a regimen of pills that she dreams will turn back the clock, is raw, real, and fearless, from the immigrant syntax to the wholly physical descent into her fate.
But strong as the actors are, they're ultimately forced to strain against Aronofsky's style, which turns Selby's quietly searing tragedy into a blast furnace. It's disconcerting to see an actress of Burstyn's caliber squirming through fisheye lenses or racing comically through digitally sped-up footage, even if her character is a speed freak: It's akin to a DJ remixer taking a great vocal performance and sampling the melody into shards of rhythm and overmagnified drama. But unlike Pi's, Requiem's cast is at least equipped to do battle, a sign that Aronofsky is moving toward a balance between his remarkable technique and actor-driven storytelling. When he achieves it, as in Harry and Marion's sadly gorgeous split-screen lovemaking, you know you're watching one of our greatest young filmmakers. But by Requiem's end, when everyone curls up in their beds like babies, hungry for love but left only with the obscure objects of their addictions, you may need to curl up as well, too weary to feel the fullness of the moment.