This is the second of three Darren Aronofksy fims that I’ve watched while trying to clear out my Netflix DVD queue (the others are The Wrestler, which I watched a while back, and Black Swan, which I have yet to see), and I’m probably not the only person who first found out who he is when this film came out (I had seen Pi on the video store shelves but did not watch the film). At the time of its release in 2000, I knew it was about drug addiction and starred Jared Leto and Jennifer Connolly. I also knew that Ellen Burstyn had gotten a lot of praise for her performance and was nominated for Best Actress (she lost to Julia Roberts). I also knew that it was known for having a lot of cuts and being a tripped-out sort of film.
The story follows four people who all have some sort of drug problem. Harry (Jared Leto), Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are all heroin addicts. Harry and Marion are dating and the three of them are not only using but trafficking heroin because they want to make a lot of money and use that to make some sort of improvement in their lives. For Tyrone, it’s getting out of the ghetto where he lives; for Harry and Marion, it’s opening a store for Marion to sell clothes based on her own designs. This actually works at first, but as time goes on and they indulge their addictions more and more while the supply dries up, they become increasingly desperate.
Meanwhile, Harry’s mother, Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), finds out that she is going to be on her favorite game show and goes to diet in order to fit back into the red dress she wore to Harry’s high school graduation. When the pounds aren’t coming off as fast as she would like, she takes the advice of her friend and goes to a doctor who prescribes her amphetamines in the form of diet pills. Over the course of the film, she becomes addicted to the pills and continually hallucinates that her refrigerator is mocking her, eventually leading to a psychotic break.
The three stories are intertwined and are stretched out over the summer, fall, and winter of a single year, with the summer segment being the most positive of the three, as that’s when Harry and Tyrone do their best business and Sarah’s use of the pills seems to be working the best. However, since this film is about drug addiction and the common drug addiction narrative is that we’re all waiting for something to go wrong, we are not only surprised when it does, we spend much of the first of the film trying to figure out where exactly and how it’s going to happen. Aranofsky paces the film to reflect this and makes more and more quick cuts as the film reaches its eventual frenetic climax.
Interestingly enough, I went in thinking that this was going to be a very trippy film, but I was suprised by how straightforward it was. I think that’s because my standard for a “trippy film” is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and Aronofsky isn’t trying to pull off his version of that film. I also got the feeling that he wanted you to gain some sort of sympathy for each of the four characters, and the performances are ones that get that across. Leto has always been a solid actor (this is about five years after MSCL) and does a pretty good Tony Manero-esque Brooklyn accent, while Connolly plays the beautiful but sad Marion as the embodiment of someone whose entire promise has been lost to her addiction. Marlon Wayans, who I only ever saw in comedic roles, is outstanding as Tyrone and steals a number of scenes from Leto and would have walked away with the entire movie if it weren’t for Burstyn.
Because this is Burstyn’s movie and any time that she was on screen, I was paying even more attention than to the other characters. On some level, it’s because she plays the old Jewish woman from Brooklyn incredibly well; on another level, it’s because her life is one of loneliness–she does nothing but sit and watch the same self-help infomercial starring Christopher “Shooter McGavin” McDonald all the time–and a desire for acceptance with the women in her building who are typical neighborhood “hens on a fence.” One of those “friends,” in fact, is the one who recommends the doctor (“so and so lost 50 pounds like that …”) and her final break at the end is both frightening and sad. In fact, days after I watched the film, I’m still thinking about her storyline.
I don’t think this is a movie you’d want to watch repeatedly. I’m sure that I could see it more than once, but I’d have to wait quite a while before I see it again. But it’s one of those that not only has stood the test of time (and it’s hard to believe is nearly twenty years old) but also should be required viewing.
Buy, Rent, or Skip?