Amongst the dilapidated tenement blocks of Coney Island, a mother and son decend seperately into drug addiction
The "drug movie" has a less than distinguished history. 'Reefer Madness' warned kiddies of the hellish dangers of marijuana way back in the '30s. By the '60s it was LSD, with 'The Trip', and in the '80s and '90s, cocaine attracted the horrified gaze of Hollywood with movies like 'Bright Lights, Big City' - or at least it did when Hollywood managed to drag itself out of the toilet cubicle rubbing its nose.
Sadly, despite reproducing the technical flair he showed with his daring debut, 1998's 'Pi', Darren Aronofsky's adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novella adds little to the preachy sub-genre. Here it's heroin that's the subject substance, and Harry and girlfriend Marion who perform the requisite "descent into drugs hell", treating the audience to the usual, ill-advised "maybe we'll just try the merchandise...", through the inevitable spiral of rooting behind the sofa for cash to buy smack, and, in a real crowdpleaser of a moment, shooting up into a gangrenous vein.
More promisingly, there's mom (Burstyn) who receives a telephone call inviting her on telly, and turns to diet pills to squeeze into a little red number she hasn't worn for years. She too embarks on a lazy plot of catastrophic collapse, winding up confined in a local booby hatch.
Some commentators have taken Aronofsky's striking sophomore effort to herald the birth of a real filmmaker, but while the 29 year-old certainly knows every visual technique in the book, at times he is so busy getting high on his own style that he smothers the few moments when his actors attempt to develop character in a miasma of crash cuts, undercranking and stop motion.
The director isn't helped by the source material - Selby's work is deeply dated anyway - and Aronofsky's own script has inherited a lot of the more superficial elements. The end result is incredibly depressing, not just because of the subject matter but due to the relentless predictability, descending into a montage of misery - electric shock therapy, arm amputations, and a sex show involving a terrifying double-headed dildo. You will want to look away, you may want to laugh.
Not quite the masterpiece it was hailed to be in some quarters, Darren Aronofsky's grim, but lyrical addiction drama is nonetheless one of those rare films to fail because of a surfeit of ideas, rather than the opposite.