Requiem for a Dream
Screenplay : Hubert Selby, Jr. & Darren Aronofsky (based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr.)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Ellen Burstyn (Sara Goldfarb), Jared Leto (Harry Goldfarb), Jennifer Connelly (Marion Silver), Marlon Wayans (Tyrone C. Love), Christopher McDonald (Tappy Tibbons), Louise Lasser (Ada), Keith David (Big Tim), Sean Gullette (Arnold the Shrink)
Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream is a harrowing descent into the world of addiction. It plays like a downward spiral, watching as the dreams of its characters are slowly blighted out as they are sucked into the vortex of their own physical cravings. It is also a masterpiece of subjective filmmaking, a movie in which the conscious states of the characters are manifested through various cinematic techniques, at one point becoming so intense that the screen literally begins to shake, as if it is not strong enough to withstand the emotional torment.
Based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Requiem for a Dream takes place in Brooklyn in a vaguely unspecified present (it could be the '70s, it could be the '90s, it could be tomorrow) and follows the individual, yet interconnected, descents of four main characters. First, there are two young junkies, Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), who have decided that their only chance for success is to become heroin dealers. They start small, buying a little and cutting it in order to increase their profits, hoping that they can buy a pound of pure dope that will set them on their way to the big bucks. Of course, this whole time they are also shooting heroin on a regular basis, an addiction that is constantly increasing.
Harry's girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), is an interesting case: She comes from a wealthy family and lives in a well-appointed apartment that her parents pay for, yet she is just as aimless and addicted to drugs as Harry and Tyrone. She hates her parents, and when Harry professes that he can't understand why since they give her money and a place to live, she replies quietly that money is the one thing she never asked from them. It's a sharply observed moment that deflates moralist posturing that there is no reason children of privilege should ever slip into criminality. Money doesn't solve problems; it just hides them better.
The saddest character of all, though, is Harry's mother, Sara. Portrayed by Ellen Burstyn in one of the most devastating, convincing performances of her career, Sara is also caught up in the vortex of addiction, but for much different reasons than Harry and his friends' escapism. A widow, Sara lives alone in a huge high-rise apartment building, with only her old TV and what appears to be a never-ending weight-loss infomercial to keep her company. When Sara receives a phone call that gives her the impression she will be included on this infomercial as a guest, she becomes intent on losing weight so she can fit into a red dress she wore many years earlier at Harry's high school graduation. A thoughtless doctor gives her a rainbow of diet pills to take each day, and soon enough she is addicted to their sped-up high.
What is most intriguing and horrifying about Sara's descent is her conscious removal from her own destruction. When Harry continues to inject himself with heroin even though his arm is literally disintegrating from infected track marks, we see that he is fully conscious of his actions, yet unable to stop himself. Sara, on the other hand, is naíve to the situation. Harry tries to explain to her that the diet pills are essentially speed and that, by taking them, she is risking addiction and becoming strung out. When she poo-poos his warning, it is literally because she doesn't believe him. After all, they're just diet pills. They came from a doctor. What could be bad?
There have been many films made about the pleasures and pains of drug addiction, yet I cannot think of one as utterly devastating and ultimately grim as Requiem for a Dream, perhaps because Aronofsky refuses to give the viewer any distance from the story. There is no ironic detachment as in Trainspotting (1995) or movie-of-the-week moralistic overtones, both of which provide space (albeit, two very different kinds) between the film and the viewer. Through his subjective techniques, Aronofsky forces us into the story and the conscious states of the characters.
So, when Sara has been popping diet pills like M&M's, trying to regain the high she got the first couple of days, and is wandering about her apartment, paranoid and confused, Aronofsky's camera cuts loose and takes on the characteristics of her mental state. It wanders and spins while the room around her slowly dissolves into a fantasy TV stage, and the refrigerator becomes a kind of a possessed monster, growling and moving on its own. The scene itself induces an unsettling, off-balance sensation in the viewer, making it all the easier to identify with Sara's bewilderment.
Aronofsky, who made the much-heralded independent film Pi in 1998, continues to refine his unique cinematic style by successfully incorporating a number of devices to great effect--including the split-screen, fish-eye lens shots, and sped-up photography--without overwhelming the emotional core of the narrative. He is particularly adept at employing repetition of images in conjunction with exaggerated sound effects to convey the patterned lives of his characters, from making coffee, to turning on the television set, to snorting coke.
This is especially true of the scenes in which Harry and his friends shoot up with heroin. Each time, Aronofsky gives us a rapid series of extreme close-ups depicting the act of preparing the heroin (putting it in a spoon, heating it with a lighter, getting it in a syringe), injecting it (an interior shot of the drug blasting through the bloodstream), and the resulting high (a sped-up extreme close-up of the character's eye dilating). The first time we see this series of shots, it is a jolt, a sort of cinematic rush. But, by the time we've seen it a dozen times, it becomes purposefully repetitive and loses its kick, which creates the sense of dull repetition within the characters' lives. These scenes are expert at depicting the never-ending cycles of hunger and escape that characterize the lived existence of addiction.
The last 15 minutes of Requiem for a Dream are thoroughly harrowing in their grim fatalism. This story does not have a happy ending, and, although Aronofsky never gives any sense that it will, we're still not quite prepared for it. The four main characters are eventually separated, where they spiral down to their own debased fate. Like a vortex, the speed of their descent quickens as each loop gets smaller and smaller. Aronofsky's editing style matches this sense of movement, cutting rapidly among the four narratives, quicker and quicker, until they become a blur of sexual debasement, incarceration, and nightmarish medical procedures that finally collapse into each other.
The film would be simply morbid if the characters weren't brought to life so well. Requiem for a Dream can sustain its hopeless downward spiral and keep you in its grip because the characters are worth caring about; they maintain sympathy so their fatalistic demise has a true effect. You're not watching an addict, but a human being who is addicted to drugs. Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connelly all turn in superb performances as the three young junkies, cut adrift in a modern society that seems to have no place for them. The spaces in the film are oddly vacant; even though it takes place in an urban location, there is little hustle and bustle. The characters seem constantly alone. Even when we are given a shot of Marion walking down a busy sidewalk, Aronofsky has her walking at a different speed than everyone else, thus emphasizing her separation from them.
However, it is Ellen Burstyn who gives the film its saddest human face. Her performance as Sara is one of the best I have seen all year. Of all the characters, it is Sara's hopes and dreams that hurt the hardest when they collapse because, at the beginning, she seems to have the most potential. There is a truly heart-rendering scene in which she is sitting at her kitchen table with Harry, trying to explain why appearing on this TV show means so much to her and why it is worth the risk she is taking with the diet pills. She is never particularly eloquent, and in the end all she can muster is the fact that she is old and alone and no one ever comes to visit her. Burstyn's delivery of this monologue is as gripping as it is poignant, and it says a great deal about the scene that, in a movie with more than 2,000 individual edits, Aronofksy never once moves the camera from her face.
©2000 James Kendrick