Don't expect to enjoy this film. It's the story of four losers whose dead-end lives start out bad, get a whole lot worse and end in despair and shattered dreams. Hence the title, I suppose.
It's not just pointless misery, though. It's based on a novel and directed by Darren Aronofsky, who hasn't been making movies too long but already seems to be getting heavyweight attention with almost every film he makes. So far he's done Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) and his speciality seems to be getting Best Actor and Actress Oscar nominations. He did it with The Wrestler, he looks a good bet to repeat the trick with Black Swan and he did it here too with Ellen Burstyn. When she first read the script, she was horrified and rejected the role. The camera drifts during her staggering "how it feels to be old" monologue because she'd made the cameraman cry. (Aronofsky used that take.) She spent four hours every morning being fitted with prosthetics to make her look either fat or emaciated, then her final verdict was that her work in this film was her best acting achievement.
What's more, she really is that good. That monologue's got "Oscar nomination" blazing out of it. It's erratic, unstable, wounded and going to emotional places you don't see in normal movies.
The rest of the cast aren't at her level, but they're still outstanding. Aronofsky will make you like Marlon Wayans! This is a man you associate with crimes against cinema, but here he shows that he can do strong work when he's not playing to the gallery in Scary Movie and White Chicks. Jared Leto I've never heard of, but he's great. Jennifer Connelly is playing someone who goes about as far as a woman can go. This is a cast that doesn't let you go...
...which is strange, because I found the film oddly dissociating. You'd expect something like this to be unbearable emotional trauma. It's not. I watched it peacefully. I wouldn't say I was dissociated, but I wasn't so emotionally bound up with these people that it hurt. I think it's probably that you write off these characters the moment you set eyes on them, so you know not to get too invested in them and there's no shock in seeing their circumstances slip from bad to unspeakable. Jared Leto's first action in the film is to steal his mother's TV and pawn it to buy drugs, but the shocking part is that he's blaming her for the fact that he's doing it. Meanwhile his mother (Burstyn) is a silly old woman who watches daytime TV shows in which a scary mob gets whipped into a frenzy by a huckster.
The film's dealing with addiction and altered mental states. Aronofsky will do super-fast montages of syringes, dilating pupils, petri dishes and so on. Extreme drug-induced or emotional states will be portrayed through cinematography tricks, speeding up or slowing down the soundtrack and so on. I actually recognised some of what he was portraying, although only from childhood and having a weird fit in bed or something. That was impressive, not to say freaky. Anyway, the illegal drugs will obviously be part of that, but Burstyn's law-abiding story mirrors Leto's illegal one when she becomes addicted to the weight-loss pills prescribed to her by a lazy doctor. Hello, what's your name, here's a prescription, bye. All four of our protagonists have similar problems and they're all failing to deal with them.
The upside is that these people aren't actually scum. They mean well. Burstyn loves her son, misses her late husband and just wants the best for everyone. Leto buys and sells drugs, but he's also businesslike about it and is capable of trying to be objective and sensible about his decisions. I won't say he succeeds, but at least he makes the effort. He also loves his mother. Even if he ends up basically doing exactly the same dumb junkie stuff as everyone else, ruining his life and letting his mother wreck hers without even lifting a finger to help her because he hasn't been to see her in months, at least he made the effort. A little bit. He's not unlikeable. He tries to persuade Jennifer Connolly to start her own business, for instance, which would have been a proper job with a future.
However none of that means mean these people don't have the world's worst judgement. Wayans's dream future is to get back where he was last summer. Yeah, right. He was actually in this so-called utopia, yet he still managed to fall back down to his present circumstances. If that's your idea of putting your life right, then you, my friend, are on a train to hell. Similarly Connolly is from a good family, but hates her parents and is disdainful about the money she gets from them. Leto asks why she doesn't just cut loose. Why, that would mean changing her lifestyle.
There are other things beside the actors and the storyline, of course. I didn't notice the music at the time, but apparently it's famous. It keeps getting used in trailers for other films, including The Da Vinci Code, Sunshine
, Lost, I Am Legend, Babylon A.D., Zathura and (albeit reorchestrated) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. There's also an overhead shot of Connolly in the bath that's stolen from the anime movie Perfect Blue, the remake rights to which were bought by Aranofsky just for the sake of that one shot.
Did I enjoy this film? You must be joking. Am I glad I watched it? I'm impressed by its purity in a bravely unpleasant cause, but I don't know if I'd go that far. Would I recommend it to anyone? Maybe, sort of. When I originally posted this review, some people said they'd found it underwhelming and others that they'd seen it at the cinema and found its conclusion to be "absolutely the most traumatic, mesmerising, exhausting half hour of a movie we'd ever seen." Mileage clearly varies. Obviously the people who need to see it wouldn't even dream of doing so, although there's a fair chance that they'd just agree with it if they did. I think it's an impressive filmmaking achievement and you've got to admire the way it's so steadfastly refusing to be commercial, but I also found it didn't completely draw me into its characters. Maybe that's deliberate? I don't know. Aranofsky's clearly a director to be watched, though. Premiere voted this film as one of their "25 Most Dangerous Movies", by the way.
"I love you, Harry." "I love you too, mum."