Tournament of Sadness: Round 3

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This is the third in a series of posts I will be writing to determine the most depressing movie we have in the library’s film collection. I will be watching 16 devastating movies in the coming months — feel free to join in the “fun” and share your feedback!

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Illustration by Dan Wyke: http://www.wykery.com/

Round 3: Addiction

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

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“Oh, this movie is so sad! It is sad not because of the tragic lives of its characters, but because of their goodness and their charity.”  —Roger Ebert

Things you will encounter in this movie: booze, alcohol, prostitution, sexual violence, liquor, hootch, ill-fated love, “the sauce.”

I took a break from the tournament last month. I’d like to say that it’s because I just really, really love my library; while I do, the main reason I took last month off was because I was dreading watching both movies in the Round 3 bracket. Going into the first two rounds of the tournament I had the benefit of walking into each film blindly, meaning I couldn’t possibly anticipate what I was in store for.

Unfortunately, I saw both Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream around the time they showed up in video stores (remember those?), and I don’t think I’d ever intended on revisiting either movie.

For my money, Leaving Las Vegas is definitely the tamer of the two — which is saying something because it’s about a man who decides to drink himself to death. Why does he make this decision? It’s never clear, but nor does it need to be explicitly stated. Nicolas Cage (remember when he used to be considered a legitimate actor?) plays Ben, a man who has chosen to not only embrace his demons but follow them all the way into the abyss. He has traveled to Vegas with the specific mission of drinking himself to death, and nothing will get in the way of him achieving that goal.

A possible flaw in his plan shows up in the guise of Elisabeth Shue’s character Sera, a no-nonsense prostitute. The two enter into an unexpectedly tender love affair, although one with parameters — Ben will not bring up Sera‘s employment, and Sera will not mention Ben’s drinking or try to persuade him to abandon his march towards death. Of course, these parameters can’t stay in place forever. Eventually the relationship crumbles, and the two only come back together when Ben is on his deathbed.

As a side story, something awful and stomach-churning happens to Sera about two-thirds of the way through the film. If depictions of sexual violence towards women in movies is a deal breaker for you (even when handled tastefully and with purpose) then steer clear of this film. But if you’re looking for a surprisingly compassionate love story about two very damaged individuals, then this movie might work for you. Is it depressing? Absolutely. But it’s not totally without hope due to our central couple’s honest acceptance and love for each other. It’s as though they each got one last chance at companionship and redemption before diving into the abyss. There are worse movie endings I suppose. Plus, Elisabeth Shue is great.

Score on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the most depressing.

Hopelessness: 3.5

Existential Dread: 4

Despair: 3.5

Total: 3.67 tears

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Requiem for a Dream (2000)

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Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream may be one of the most disturbing movies ever made…” —Owen Gleiberman

Things you will encounter in this movie: drug use, a disgusting arm wound, trippy game shows, prostitution, general awfulness.

Dear readers, the things I do for you.

I don’t think I’d want to hang out with the type of person who enjoys watching this particular movie. I’m not even sure if there exists a person who would say that they found watching it to be a “pleasurable” experience. Do I respect this movie? Sure, it’s visually impressive and the actors are all great, although top honors really have to go to Ellen Burstyn’s unglamorous portrayal of a delusional, speed-addicted shut-in who is slowly spiraling into madness. But let me be clear: Watching this movie is a very, very bad time.

In brief, the film explores the lives of four individuals who all succumb to drug addiction and will all reach rock bottom by the end of the film. Sara (Burstyn) is a widow who spends most of her time watching TV and becomes convinced that she’s going to be cast on her favorite game show. In an effort to lose weight before her big TV appearance she goes to a doctor who prescribes her diet pills. She becomes addicted before finally, by film’s end, tipping over into amphetamine induced psychosis. Her son Harry and his girlfriend and best friend are all addicted to heroin. They start out engaging in petty thievery to support their habit before entering the drug and prostitution trades. I honestly don’t want to type out all of the awful things that happen to these characters, so we’ll just say that things are going badly at the beginning of this movie and they will only grow increasingly worse by the end.

Aside from the subject matter, the most difficult thing about watching this movie might be the way it’s shot and edited, particularly in Burstyn’s scenes. The camera and soundtrack are meant to induce a somewhat sped up, hallucinatory experience in the viewer, and it made me nauseous at times. The camera tricks also somewhat distance the viewer from the characters, and while I found re-watching this movie difficult and deeply unpleasant, I’m not sure if I felt much compassion for the characters. While I would certainly call this movie depressing, I don’t think it’s as sad and devastating overall as Lilya 4-Ever or even Amour, movies where the truly horrific is mixed with deep sympathy for the characters and a touch of the sublime.

Score on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the most depressing.

Hopelessness: 4.5

Existential Dread: 4

Despair: 4.5

Total: 4.33 tears

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While both of these films are finely acted, they are not for the faint of heart. They are both memorable and unflattering portrayals of addiction and are fearless in depicting the grotesque depravity their protagonists will sink to in order to meet their next fix. Both are challenging films, but the imagery on display in Requiem approaches nightmare territory. While it’s well acted and executed, I stand by my initial analysis — if you’ve seen it once you never need to see it again. Unless of course you are, like me, participating in a fool’s errand of your own devising.

Happy viewing (?),

Tara

Check out the “winner” today!

Requiem for a Dream

Tara is a Librarian in the Music, Film & Audio Department, and loves to make film & book recommendations. Some of her interests include gardening, cookbooks, foreign films, comedy albums and devastating literary fiction.