By John H. Foote
The first thing I wanted after seeing this astonishing film about addiction was a shower. How I wanted that hot steamy water to wash away the horrors I had just witnessed on the screen in this harrowing, ultra realistic film about addictions, not just to drugs, there are so many everyday addictions explored in this movie. Walking up the street to interview two of the actors, I began formulating my questions in my head but when I was sitting across from them, my first query was “What did you learn about yourself making this film”?
Ellen Burstyn reached over and touched my knee whispering, “what a brilliant question, I like you.” She then described how she portrayed this poor character.
Burstyn’s nightmarish performance in this film stands among the finest five performances ever given in a motion picture. I was galvanized by her work in a way I had not been since Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1982). I was convinced she would win her second richly deserved Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance but in one of those curious years, she did not. Her loss still brings unbridled rage to me when I think about it.
Darren Aronofsky’s seething film deals with a group of people addicted to, amongst other things, diet pills, heroin, television, candy, the past and sex. The director seems to have created the most astonishing film made about addiction, one that should be shown in every high school in North America, but for obvious reasons cannot. Yet those reasons: the rough however realistic language, the up-close portrait of the effects of addictions, and the sex are facts of life most ninth graders are already aware. Seeing this film, I suspect drug use might take a seriously dip, but who knows? After seeing the film for the first time some months after I did, my wife was stunned, absolutely blown out of her chair by the artistry and performances but said she never wanted to go through that two hours again. She admired the genius within the film but could not emotionally deal with going into the pit of despair these characters walk.
They do not come out unscathed.
Set in modern-day Brooklyn, New York, a near 60 widow Sarah (Burstyn) spends her bleak days watching daytime television, munching candies and dwelling in the past. She attempts to be a contestant on her favourite game show and to slim down begins ingesting speed to lose weight in order to fit into a red dress her husband loved her in. She wakes often to her television having been stolen by her addict son Harry (Jared Leto) and she dutifully walks to buy it back, ignoring her son’s issues.
Harry and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) have accumulated a solid stash of money from their drug business which allows Harry to buy his mom a big screen TV to feed her watching habit and, as he delivers the news, he becomes aware of her clicking teeth, the giveaway to any speed addict. But he has his own troubles when he, Marion and Tyrone get high on their own supply, against the cardinal rule for any drug dealer. They become addicts, Harry sporting a rotted arm from ruined needles, black and stinking, while Marion begins selling herself for dope. Tyrone ends up in jail, exactly where he does not wish to be.
Sarah suffers far worse than the young ones. Hallucinations, madness, extreme weight loss, eventually given electric shock therapy all which age her 20 or more years. Her friends react in horror finally seeing her in the hospital, hair stringy and white, down the weight she had lost, a vacant far away look in her eyes the kind of expression that lets you know she has checked out from the human race, the intensity of the procedures and withdrawal from the multitude of drugs she was taking having destroyed any semblance to the Sarah they knew.
And Harry? He wakes in a hospital miles away minus an arm, hacked off due to gangrene, while Marion sells herself to a home sex show, getting it on with a two ended dildo and a strange girl, to the maniacal cheering of men.
The film brilliantly explores how addiction destroys so completely there is no chance of coming back. The hell the film portrays had never been presented in such a forceful manner, both exciting and frantic, the film is ultimately horrifying and truly terrifying, a descent into a hell none of the characters saw coming.
The performances represent a quartet of acting genius, beginning with Burstyn as outgoing, friendly Sarah, a performance for the ages, easily the finest of her impressive career. We watch as Sarah’s hopes and dreams become terrifying hallucinations as her fridge eventually accosts her in her drab apartment. The descent into hell portrayed by a Burstyn confirmed her status as a God among actors. The courage it took to play this role can never be fully grasped, she was darkly astonishing and heartbreaking. How did she lose that Oscar?
Equally shattering is Jennifer Connelly as Marion who resorts to selling her body for drugs. The humiliation is clear on her face but greater is her hunger for the heroin she needs to inject into her veins. With each hit she steps closer to death.
As Harry, Jared Leto is shockingly thin, and creates a devastating portrait of a young addict who goes too far in his quest for one big score. His arm becomes the metaphor for his life, rotted and black, looking like an open cancer on his body that must be taken off. Marlon Wayans as his friend Tyrone is superb, leaving one to wonder why more dramatic roles did not come his way.
Aronofsky brings fast cuts, intense close ups and a powerful musical score to enhance the sensations of being under the influence of drugs. Paralyzingly in its raw, visceral power, the young filmmaker pulls no punches in his creation of this horrific journey directly into the hell that is addiction.
A masterpiece, my choice as the very best film of 2000.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.