Today’s cinema adventure: Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film exploring the dehumanizing, destructive effects of addiction through its depiction of three seasons in the lives of a group of interconnected characters. Noted for bringing the promising Aronofsky to the forefront of attention as one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors, it garnered many accolades- especially for the performance of its veteran star, Ellen Burstyn, for whom it provided a comeback of sorts, and for its powerful musical score by Clint Mansell. It also generated much controversy over its use of graphic drug-related and sexual imagery, receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA despite Aronofsky’s protest and appeals. When the director refused to make cuts, the distributor, Artisan, showed rare support by deciding to release the film without a rating; on subsequent home video release, a slightly edited R-rated version was made available in addition to the original cut, ironically missing only a few brief graphic sexual images- evidently, the hardcore drug use was considered less objectionable than the sex.
The film’s interwoven plot follows the fate of four Brooklyn-ites: Sarah, an aging Jewish widow whose life is mainly occupied with watching television infomercials; her son Harry, whose recreational drug habit is funded by the repeated pawning of his mother’s TV (which she promptly buys back, every time); his girlfriend Marion, an aspiring fashion designer supported by her wealthy parents; and his best friend Tyrone, who dreams of living up to his mother’s high hopes for him even as he slings drugs on the street. When Harry and Tyrone decide to go into the heroin business for themselves, using Tyrone’s connections as a source and planning to use the profits to open a shop for Marian’s designs, the future starts to look brighter for the three young people; meanwhile Harry’s mother is notified that she has been chosen to appear as a contestant on a game show, giving her a new lease on life, as well. However, the promise of these new developments quickly sours: Tyrone is arrested after being caught in the middle of a drug gang assassination, requiring Harry to use most of their profits to bail him out; and in her desire to lose weight for her impending TV appearance, Sarah becomes dependent on prescription amphetamine diet pills. To make matters worse, a heroin shortage forces Harry and his companions to resort to desperate- and progressively more degrading- means in obtaining the drugs to support their own worsening addictions, and Sarah is plagued by disturbing hallucinations as her sanity begins to deteriorate rapidly. With their dreams of a better life now hopelessly out of reach, there is nothing for any of them to do but spiral deeper into their private hells, driven by their addictions and haunted by the memories of what might have been.
Adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., the screenplay, co-written by Aronofsky and the author himself, paints a bleak and harrowingly realistic picture of the horrors of drug addiction; despite this, however, the film is not so much a polemic against drug abuse as it is an exploration of the very nature of addiction itself. Each of its characters uses escapism as a salve to ease the pain and monotony of their lives, whether it be heroin, food, sex, or mindless TV programming. The drugs which ultimately destroy their lives are merely a metaphor for the so-called “American Dream;” the film’s ultimate purpose is to expose it as a lie, a fabricated ideal of success which obscures the real human experiences of family, love, and community. In the pursuit of an unattainable goal, such tangible rewards go unappreciated and ignored, and are eventually lost; each of the film’s four central characters are inherently likable, essentially good-hearted individuals who embrace an illusion as a means to bring them the happiness they are sure will follow when they achieve their goals- but the means itself is a destructive, uncontrollable force which creates chaos, pulling them ever further from the fulfillment for which they long. It’s a powerful message, and the disturbing form in which it is delivered suggests some very uncomfortable questions about the level of addiction- in all its guises- permeating our society. Through the joined tales of each protagonist, we are shown the ease with which an average person can make the journey to becoming one of the millions of broken, lost souls from whom we quickly look away, terrified of being reminded of the nightmare existence which goes on between the cracks in our culture’s cheery, prosperous façade.
Jolting as the screenplay may be, what makes Requiem for a Dream such a ferocious and unforgettable film experience is Aronofsky’s audacious and hallucinatory visual style. The director keeps a clinical distance from his subjects, discouraging the formation of a sentimental connection by way of his constantly shifting perspective and his use of camera-and-editing-room trickery. He alternates between omniscient long distance shots and intimate extreme close-ups, underscores ironic parallels and repetitive patterns with rapid-fire cuts (known, incidentally, as “hip hop montage”), highlights isolation and disconnection with extensive split screen effects, heightens the surreal atmosphere with time-lapse and slow-motion photography, and takes us into the psyche of his characters with the use of lenses which recreate the grotesque and distorted imagery of their delusional perceptions. With all these visual elements in play, he still manages to build the pace steadily with progressively shorter scenes and more rapid and frequent intercutting as the movie moves towards its conclusion. It’s a visual thrill ride worthy of the Coney Island setting which provides a backdrop for several of its scenes, and a display of technical mastery that leaves no doubt of this director’s prodigious cinematic talent. More than that, though, the carefully maintained emotional detachment facilitates an empirical quality to his film, allowing him to place the emphasis on observation rather than drama. As his characters move through their experiences, Aronofsy lets the circumstantial developments of the plot serve merely as a means to elicit reactions from them, focusing instead on their behavior and psychology; he pays particular attention to the ritualization of their addictions, the fantasies and associations that arise from the situations in which they find themselves, and the ways in which they blind themselves to their own vulnerability. It’s an approach which sometimes makes us feel like a voyeur, with the characters as objects for our perusal and study- specimens instead of the more conventional vehicles for transference of audience sympathy.
It’s not all flash and style, however, and the solidly intellectual and aesthetic approach to the subject does not make for a cold film. Though Aronofsky maintains his artistic aloofness throughout, taking care not to sugarcoat his characters or their obsessions and making sure the absurdity of their fantasies never threatens to become overtly comic in tone, Requiem for a Dream is far from being devoid of humanity. On the contrary, the depth of emotion which each character experiences is given full scope and attention; it’s fair to say, in fact, that the real story lies more in their emotional journey than in the outward circumstances of their experiences. Certainly the full power of Aronofsky’s film derives from its emotional weight, and the detachment with which he depicts their struggles somehow has the effect of bringing their poignancy into stark relief, making us feel their misery far more keenly than if it were portrayed in a Hollywood-style, sentiment-drenched narrative. It’s not empathy, exactly, an effect Aronofsky works so diligently to avoid, nor is it pathos; rather, it is a form of psychic horror at the level of desperation to which these damned souls are driven to sink in their quest for gratification, something akin to the overwhelming sense of nameless loss experienced when we witness a tragic accident or a cataclysmic disaster.
Requiem for a Dream, as Aronofsky clearly understood, can only work so effectively upon us with a strong cast breathing life into the subjects under its director’s microscope. Jared Leto, as Harry, is a worthy leading man, providing a solid, grounding energy that makes even his most misguided actions seem like a reasonable idea; he gives his character intelligence and a genuinely good nature, making him the most likable figure in the film and making his deterioration the most heartbreaking to watch. Jennifer Connelly, as Marian, exudes the confidence and elegance of privilege but adds a palpable layer of little-girl insecurity; and Marlon Wayans, as Tyrone, exudes easy-going charm and a sincere warmth that makes it clear his intentions are as good as he says they are. The most unforgettable performance, however, comes from Burstyn, as Sarah; her unflinchingly honest portrayal is the centerpiece of the film, capturing us from her first moments onscreen- locking herself in the bedroom while her son steals her television, yet again, for drug money- and taking us on the ups and downs of her journey to hell without ever once resorting to cheap sentimentality or self-conscious mannerism. Her work in the final third of the film is particularly remarkable, giving it a tragic power that belies its disaffected style. It’s as real a piece of screen acting as you will ever see, fully deserving of all the acclaim it garnered for this magnificent performer; and, as a bonus, there is an added resonance in the scenes of her psychotic episodes, later in the film, which is unavoidably derived from memories of her iconic role in The Exorcist.
Aronofsky’s film benefits greatly from the work of these fine players, as well as from that of other actors in smaller roles- the criminally-underappreciated Louise Lasser, Mark Margolis, Keith David, and the grinning, unctuous Christopher MacDonald, as banal infomercial host Tappy Tibbons. There is also the gritty-yet-luminous cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the aforementioned score by Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos String Quartet, giving the film a distinctive tone which is at once majestic and ethereal. Ultimately, however, the success of Requiem for a Dream- and it is very successful- lies with its visionary director. It is he who has taken all these elements and brought them together to serve his purpose here; in doing so, he has managed to make a film which is simultaneously beautiful and horrific, scientific and operatic, and above all, indelible. His cinematic sensibilities have since been proven repeatedly, but never more definitively than with this film, which remains his best work to date- less formulaic than The Wrestler and scarier than Black Swan. Perhaps it is because of the universality at its core; though most of us, hopefully, will not succumb to the ravages of drug addiction, we can all see ourselves reflected in the four doomed people he shows us, choosing the quick and easy way to relieve the pain and monotony of our lives- fantasy, chocolates, television, movies, the internet, or whatever we may choose- just to give us, as Sarah puts it, “a reason to get up in the morning.” It’s not a cheerful movie- though, admittedly, there are some darkly ironic moments which might bring a morbid chuckle or two- and it doesn’t offer much in the way of hope or answers to the difficult questions it raises; but, of course, that’s what makes it so great. If Requiem for a Dream wrapped itself into a neat package, assuming a comfortable, morally appropriate stance or suggesting some false-ringing glimmer of light at the end of its characters’ respective tunnels, it would be easy to process it, set it aside, and forget about it; but I guarantee you, whether you love it or hate it- and there are many on both sides of that issue- you will never be able to erase it from your memory. If that’s not a sign of a great movie, I don’t know what is.