‘Requiem For A Dream’ Doesn’t Haunt Like ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’

“We need to work together to resist the toxicity that runs deep in our world, and this powerful, timeless work presents the nightmares that occur when we don’t.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh looks up while walking down the street. Behind her is a green vintage car and a crowd of people in 1950s working class clothing.
Image courtesy of Guild Film Distribution

Requiem for a Dream is undoubtedly a more famous adaptation than Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’d be hard to imagine many people saying that Uli Edel’s Last Exit to Brooklyn is a better take on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novels than the former. The infamy of the former stems from how horrifically bleak it is, presenting the gradual and total destruction of four drug addicts with cleverly stylised storytelling from Darren Aronofsky. The earlier Brooklyn has been unfairly forgotten, however, as it presents something quite different: a tableau of a toxic society that drags people into its mire. It’s a violent, sad, and unsettling film, but one that speaks of society’s horrors in a way that its better known, more narrowly-focused cousin doesn’t.

The early 1950s play host to the story. Considering how much cinema has romanticised the era, it’s the perfect choice of setting. It’s been portrayed by the likes of Grease and American Graffiti as an era of gleaming cars, youthful energy, playful romance, and old-school American values. This take on the era shows a corner of society that has been abandoned and, like America itself, suggests terminal decline. Poverty, violence and bigotry infect every corner of Brooklyn; the beatdown of a marine at the film’s start suggests how distant post-war glory is. The unfiltered honesty of the tale was enough to get the book tried for obscenity in the UK and to make the film disappear into obscurity.

In only an hour and a half, the film swoops around a broad cross section of society. The tale is arguably framed by the union and its workers, who have been on strike for months from the local factory. From there viewers are taken into grimy, prostitution-filled bars, emotionally empty homes and the violent streets. There’s an ever-increasing sense of how these lives are intertwined, and the destruction that reliance on such a broken community results in. But the film avoids cross-cutting and other dramatic devices that might link up all the different stories too neatly, and instead resembles a parable as it observes, then disappears from, these different slices of largely horrible lives.

But the tone is unique for a film that is explicit in how it presents society’s horrors. It has the feel of melodrama with its camp performances, a wistful score, and painterly shots. One of the most striking is the end of Harry Black’s (Stephen Lang) story, with the beaten, bloodied and ruined man laid out in a building site like Christ on the cross. The camera moves to hang over the street, his attackers disappearing into a bar on one of Brooklyn’s empty, merciless blocks. An equally unforgettable sequence, however, is where workers are blockading their factory’s gates, and this is because of its inversion of the melodramatic formula. A clunking industrial score and dramatic angles give a sense of the horror of the assault on them, and it’s made even more effective because of the changed pace. These tonal choices are unusual for something that has the themes of more dour social realism, but the approach here amplifies the emotion behind the characters’ journeys.

Sometimes the melodrama doesn’t work and does distract from the reality of the story. There are some offensively stereotypically shrill and self-absorbed queer characters acting as a particularly unwelcome element. Arguably the film is a little self-absorbed, wanting to wring as much drama as possible from its source material without thinking about its impact. Perhaps even worse is that it doesn’t suggest the population of Brooklyn might contain the high percentage of citizens of color that it actually does. The heightened nature of the tale largely is immersive, though, as it both gives enough grandeur to really impress upon viewers how widespread society’s sickness is, and makes everything eerily offbeat rather than just clinically unpleasant. The stories and world aren’t always presented in a way that makes for pitch-perfect, high-quality cinema, but the intentions behind the film’s style are always clear.

The score deserves its recognition for the work it does, even if it might not be traditionally appealing. It creates atmosphere and cements the film’s messages. Sometimes the music is peacefully melancholy, reminding viewers of their role as observers of a time long gone. Sometimes it moves towards more upbeat organ music, giving a religious undertone — one that is unquestionably ironic against the suffering experienced by the characters. The approaches combine to create a sense that these experiences are simply the tragic fates of these characters, even though there’s little suggestion of the hand of a God behind the constrictive microcosm of Brooklyn. 

Where Requiem is interested in cinematography and a flashy modern style, the makers of Last Exit to Brooklyn are at pains to create a powerful vision of the borough in the ’50s. The most noticeable quality is undoubtedly the filth, with peeling wallpaper, grubby environments, and even the clothes of the most reputable figures being stained. Everyone and everything is collapsing or abandoned, and the broad, lawless streets are mostly empty apart from the violent troublemakers that roam them. Brooklyn appears not as an ordinary place where bad things happen to people, but a spiritual vacuum. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to call it Hell on Earth.

Jennifer Jason Leigh sits at a bar with her head resting on her hand. A bartender looks at her as he wipes down the counter.
Image courtesy of Guild Film Distribution

The misery on display is frequent, and covers emotional torment as well as physical abuse. It happens on a personal level, such as a gang of youths beating people up, acting as pimps for Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and harassing people not in their social circle. It extends to the authorities, with the striking sequence of the factory blockade — though any police officers or other officials are rarely seen. The terrifying nature of Brooklyn is that its men exercise their own punitive authority without the need for a badge. Toxic attitudes seem to fester in most of the characters, with a willingness to oppress others bubbling up in almost all of the male characters. Such a scope of cruelties, from the everyday to the exceptional, gives the tale the sense of reality that makes the melodrama effective.

That the worst aspects of this society are largely unavoidable means that people’s fates become far more complete, and terrifying, than in Requiem for a Dream. Drug abuse pushes the four leads of Requiem for a Dream into places of physical and mental destruction, isolating them from the world and its destruction. Here, however, there’s not only self-induced trauma but total ostracisation by those in charge of this little inescapable world. Brooklyn has its own power structures and rules, and Tralala and Harry both find themselves discarded by the film’s end. The only ray of hope, perhaps, is the realisation that society now is different today than it was in the ’50s — but what good is future prosperity to those suffering now? 

Last Exit to Brooklyn presents a version of the ’50s that many people won’t have seen before. As such a contrast to other representations of the era, it asks viewers whether this type of scenario is an anomaly or if, perhaps, it’s a more accurate depiction of the era than we’ve seen? The question is one that is a particularly unsettling one to confront, as the work isn’t just asking people to be scared of their own failure like Requiem For A Dream. The fear here is the much more threatening notion that society is more dangerous than we realise; that we’re trapped amidst its expectations and oppression no matter our intentions. But perhaps a light peeking through the darkness of this story is that it’s a call to action and in difficult times the film reminds us of the threats we all face if we don’t collaborate. We need to work together to resist the toxicity that runs deep in our world, and this powerful, timeless work presents the nightmares that occur when we don’t.