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No. 20: “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)

“Somebody like you can really make things all right for me.” ~~Harry Goldfarb

Be forewarned: Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” is a dismal affair, a punishing bit of filmmaking that stuns the senses with rapid-fire camera work and empties the soul of all possibility. Certainly the “thing without feathers” that poet Emily Dickinson wrote of cannot be found here; instead, Aronofsky drags us to the bottom and leaves us there, numb and disoriented and fumbling blindly for some kind of exit.

But for those who can stomach this kind of bleakness, all these qualities are what make “Requiem for a Dream” a true work of art. It is the creation of a major new talent absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision in order to pacify anyone, including the MPAA. Aronofsky refused to change or excise any part of “Requiem for a Dream” even after the organization slapped the film with an NC-17 rating. He was right to stand firm; each scene is necessary to build the slow-then-all-at-once momentum, which has the feel of that inevitable slide from casual drug use to full-blown addiction.

That slide is the same and it is different from every character in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” There is Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), whose only ambition in life is to snort or shoot smack with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). For Harry’s lonely, frumpish mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), it’s a combination of uppers and downers that does her in. Her addiction is, perhaps, the most tragic because it is accidental. She mistakenly believes a telemarketing call will land her a spot on her favorite television show (hosted by Christopher McDonald, all phony, creepy smiles here) and thinks diet pills will slim her back into her favorite red dress. Early in their addictions, each has dreams that seem simple enough and completely attainable: Harry wants to earn enough money to help Marion her own dress store, Tyrone wants financial security and Sara wants to recapture happier times by losing weight and impressing her friends on television.

What Aronofsky drives home with relentless force is the way hard-core addiction blunts individuality, reducing every addict’s life to the same schedule: get high, come down, look for the means to get high again. Sara, Harry, Tyrone, Marion — the how or why any of them started doesn’t matter because their lives, at the end, are headed down the same spiral. Rather than depend solely on his actors to communicate this stomach-churning downshift, Aronofsky uses the camera. The characters appear on split-screen early on. Later, the director uses quick scenes of repetition: powder-into-spoon-into-syringe-into-veins, or pill-in-hand-then-mouth, followed by pupil dilation, sighs. Then the process becomes more rapid and appears more often, signaling the deepening of addiction. Aronofsky also makes unnerving use of extreme close-ups, most notably in a shaky scene where Tyrone, spattered with blood from a deal gone bad, flees the police. Even more disturbing is the close-up we get of Sara’s jittery face during her return visit to the doctor who prescribed her uppers, where it’s clear she’s losing her grip on reality and he can’t be bothered to notice. Backed by Clint Mansell’s wrenching score, these techniques are as disturbing as they are effective.

Perhaps more unsettling are the actors themselves, who elevate the term “dedication” to a new level. Each scene requires them to dig lower into depravity than the one before, and yet none of them recoil in the slightest. Wayans, never accused of being a particularly gifted actor, plays it low-key as the mostly-levelheaded Tyrone, while Jared Leto perfects the brand of bruised soulfulness he created for “My So-Called Life.” Always a painfully open actress, Connelly goes further than ever before, baring body and soul; her Marion is a walking, festering wound. Ultimately, Burstyn leaves the most and damaging impression. By the end, Sara has hit lows no human being should ever, ever see. Pills have taken her so far into her own head that she can’t process the living world. It is her face we see in the end, and it is her dead eyes that tell us drugs take us to places we can’t come back from.

16 Responses

  1. yeah i finally caught this a few weeks ago, having once stumbled across just its ending on late night tv – big mistake to do that
    its a hard watch and normally not the kind of film i like but it is a good film. the only thing i would have issue with is the only thing it sets out to say is that ‘drugs are bad’, which i knew already from Mr Mackie.

    • I don’t think anyone could watch more than five minutes of this and come away saying, “Oh, you know what I’ve always wanted to try? Heroin. That sounds like a blast.” So maybe Aronofsky pushes that agenda a little too hard, but I like that he didn’t give in to MPAA pressure. That’s the mark of a tough bastard, is what that is.

  2. I have said for years that if you show this to kids in Jr. High School, you wouldn’t have a drug problem in this country in 10 years.

    After watching this the first (and only time) I felt like “I” had an addiction and needed to bathe myself in fire and peroxide…still get shudders from thinking about that movie…but like The Devils Rejects, it’s so damned well done.

    • “bathe myself in fire and peroxide” … too bad I don’t have Aronofsky’s e-mail address or I’d forward that comment to him — sounds like the highest “you took me inside the movie” compliment I can think of!

  3. didn’t like this at all – all a bit trendy / indulgent for me and the ‘ah but do you see’ tone of the mum’s addiction really pushed it over the edge… love the rest of Aronofsky’s work

    • I’m not sure I could say I “liked” this one because I’m not sure anyone could say he or she “enjoyed” it. This is more one that I have to appreciate when I watch it once or twice every three years. But I was blown friggin’ away by Ellen Burstyn, who was robbed of the Oscar by that babbling idiot Julia Roberts for “Erin Brockovich.”

  4. One of my Top 5 movies. I can’t say “I like it” because you can’t like something so disturbing but in my opinion it’s a masterpiece. So powerful…

  5. I still haven’t seen this one due to it’s heavy flavor. It’s just one of those flicks that I can’t find the mental energy to watch.

    • I only watch it maybe once a year, and that feeling of abject hopelessness lingers for days afterward. You said it — it takes a lot of “mental energy” to watch this.

  6. This film is utterly disturbing but is honestly one of the most effective films about drugs that I have ever seen.

    • Way more effective than all that crap they fed us in high school about marijuana being a “gateway drug.” Like Marc said above — if they just showed THIS to kids in jr. high no one would ever try drugs. At least not heroin!

  7. I watched Pi for the first time last night and really liked it. He seems to like to push the envelope just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes, but he makes you care enough to peek through your fingers to see how the characters are going to make it through.

    • That’s a rare combination, the technical skill as a director and the desire to make sure the characters don’t get lost in fancy camera tricks.

  8. Holy crap — just watched this movie tonight. I don’t think any movie has ever been so scary to watch. If I ever come face-to-face with hard-core drugs, Clint Mansell’s score will play in my head and I won’t touch them. If ever a parent wanted kids not to do drugs, this would be the movie to show.

    I can’t remember the last time a movie engaged me at this level in all aspects. Technically, it’s messages are subtle but incredibly accessible. Acting-wise, all superb, even Wayans and especially Burstyn.

    And I remembered to come back and comment on this post because it’s one of the DVDs in your header!

  9. […] way, as mentally unstable ballerina Nina Sayers Portman goes just as far as Ellen Burstyn did in “Requiem for a Dream.” Both women have lost whatever pitiful coping mechanisms they had. In Nina’s case, it is not […]

  10. […] Requiem for a Dream [2000] – (IMDb: 8.4) Image source: […]

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