How could Darren Aronofsky make a movie about heroin addicts? The nod and the drool, the languor and the blankness, from the man whose hyperactive pi depicted migraine headaches as the hammer of the gods? Well, rest assured that he didn’t adapt Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream by turning down the volume. Although most of the protagonists spend much of their time sedated, the film establishes its rhythm with a frenzied opening scene, in which junkie Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), desperate for a fix, steals his mother’s chosen conduit to oblivion, a TV set.

Of course, a manic smack movie is not unprecedented; Trainspotting also began at a gallop. But whereas that film’s giddy energy showed the influence of Britain’s ecstasy-fueled acid-house movement, Requiem for a Dream is under the jittery sway of mother’s little helpers. The film’s central figure is Harry’s mom, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a lonely Coney Island widow who becomes addicted to amphetamines. She thinks the pills will make her thin enough to appear on her primary obsession, a hyped-up TV program that seems part game show, part talk show, and part self-actualization session.

Sara doesn’t get out much—when introduced, she’s locked both in her bedroom and in half of a split-screen composition—so the film spends more time with Harry, his drug pal Ty (Marlon Wayons), and Harry’s girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), who would be too good for him if she weren’t a junkie, too. The three drug-addled youngsters make a few good scores and get overconfident, but if money gets tight, it’s Marion who has to locate some cash, initially by selling herself to her smarmy former shrink. When things go wrong—and they go way wrong—Marion finds herself at one end of a two-headed dildo in front of an exclusive audience, a scene that would exemplify degradation a little more persuasively if it weren’t so glamorously lit. (Aronofsky is willing to let Burstyn look like hell, but Connelly is another matter.)

In fact, much of Requiem for a Dream is oddly alluring. With a much higher budget than pi’s, Aronofsky has refined his edgy debut’s techniques—notably the subjective viewpoints, including cameras actually strapped to actors’ chests—to conjure a high-gloss narcotic fantasia. The split screens are designed to emphasize the characters’ isolation—in one scene, Harry and Marion lie in bed together yet are in separate frames—but they also evoke such psychedelic-age romps as Woodstock. Meanwhile, the extreme closeups and camera angles, quick cuts, fisheye lenses, overwrought fantasy sequences, and rhythmic editing—set to Clint Mansell’s techno-goes-uptown score—inevitably suggest MTV. Even as the story gets darker, the movie seems more a trip than a downer.

Ultimately, the scenario—co-written by Aronofsky and Selby himself—dispels most of the appeal of being young, beautiful, in love, and a junkie. All four main characters are left to unravel alone, and as Harry’s physical ruination catches up with Sara’s psychological collapse, they suffer equally gruesome—and frantically cross-cut—fates. The film doesn’t quite splatter Harry’s downfall in your face, but it comes as close as contemporary technology allows.

The film’s bleak bravado is matched by its actors. Burstyn gives a ferocious performance, and Connelly’s Marion has an especially poignant moment: When Harry calls from jail to promise he’ll be coming home soon, she asks, “Can you come today?” in the tiniest of voices. Still, the director’s approach is so mechanical that the characters often seem like pieces in a perverse chess game. With its drastic images of physical mortification, Requiem for a Dream is more visceral than pi, yet Aronofsky still seems to care more about ideas than drama.

Those ideas, alas, are as dated as the film’s machinations are chilly. Selby published his novel in 1978, which seems at least a decade too late. By then, tales of uppers-crazed housewives and the metaphor of TV as a drug were both rather stale. And it’s not just the movie’s look that suggests a breathless communiqué from a more easily outraged age. Exhilarating as it is to watch, Requiem for a Dream presents notions of chemical dependency and video pacification that most Americans have already casually swallowed with a chaser of irony.

Like Requiem for a Dream, A Room for Romeo Brass is set in the director’s old neighborhood, but otherwise the films have little in common. Shane Meadows’ second feature is nearly as offhand as Aronofsky’s is contrived and, for much of its running time, seems little more than an old childhood photo come to life. The film’s initial diffidence, though, is ultimately revealed to be an accurate representation of the emotional wariness of two 12-year-old boys in a macho working-class culture.

Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) is the stocky, perpetually ravenous offspring of a broken marriage; his next-door neighbor and best friend is fragile, wisecracking Gavin “Knocks” Woolley (Ben Marshall), whose parents remain unhappily together. As the action begins, Knocks is about to enter the hospital for a back operation. The two boys snipe at each other enough to explain why Meadows chose “Stop your messing around” (from the Specials’ “A Message to You Rudy”) as their motto, but Romeo sticks up for Knocks nonetheless.

One day when the larger boy is overwhelmed by tormentors, an adult intervenes. Morell (Paddy Considine) is an odd character but at first seems harmless. It turns out that he’s interested in Romeo’s older sister, Ladine (Vicky McClure), so Knocks is dispatched to find out her idea of proper dress for a suitor. Of course, he reports that Ladine likes just what she said she didn’t: brightly colored polyester sports gear. When his new outfit doesn’t impress his intended, the lovestruck Morell is furious at Knocks’ joke. At first, though, it’s unclear just how angry and menacing Morell can be.

Knocks eventually comes to understand Morell’s volatility at knife point and refuses to have anything more to do with him. In his pursuit of Ladine, however, Morell keeps cultivating Romeo. After Knocks’ operation, Romeo is too busy with his new pal to visit his recuperating friend. The boys’ close alliance just evaporates, as childhood friendships often do. Romeo will have to discover for himself that Morell is a threat, in the process learning that his father is good for something after all.

A Room for Romeo Brass has a lived-in quality that’s easy enough to explain: Meadows and co-writer Paul Fraser essentially are, respectively, Romeo and Knocks. The film was shot in an English Midlands housing project that resembles the one where the collaborators grew up, and Shim and Marshall are impressively natural both in this milieu and with each other. Sometimes the director’s approach seems a little too relaxed, as when Bob Hoskins (who starred in Meadows’ feature debut, TwentyFourSeven) arrives for a distracting cameo as Knocks’ tutor. Still, the accumulation of details is skillful: By the film’s end, what initially seemed a modest autobiographical sketch has become a compact but rich social landscape. CP

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