Updated: May 15, 2019
2000, 102 Min., American, Budget: 4.5 Mil. (estimated)
Here is a film I saw fifteen years ago, loved, and vowed never to watch again because it was so emotionally devastating. I had stayed true to my word until this experiment prompted me to revisit Requiem and, unsurprisingly, the film remains as potent as ever. Still unrelenting, still brutal, still totally effective. Described as a “psychological tragedy” (ruminate on that phrase for a second), Requiem for a Dream has become famous for several reasons, not least of which is director Darren Aronofsky’s dizzying and masterful use of his camera. What really astounds me now, upon the second viewing, is how accomplished the vision of such a young director was and how he was able to execute that vision with clarity and control. Implementing style that might seem superfluous in another film, Aronofsky puts us inside his movie and the heads of his characters with a Mary Poppins-equse bag of cinematic tricks -- seemingly bottomless. The camera shakes, spins, whips, falls out of windows, is strapped to bodies (via the device known as a SnorriCam), and switches seamlessly from subjective to objective points of view. Fourth walls are shattered, music overwhelms the scene, extreme close-ups are juxtaposed against wide shots whose action resides far in the distance, and never once does this film misstep in its attempt to walk the fine line between content and form. Forget the “kitchen sink approach,” Aronofsky throws a fridge at us -- literally -- and to startling effect. There’s also the ever-quickening pace to mention, moving in and out of fantasy (or drug-induced fever dream), running at full speed toward an inevitably that still feels like a surprise when we get there. Where the average 100 minute film has roughly 600 cuts, or individual edits, this movie has close to 2000. Almost a (“hip-hop”) montage of horror, with that iconic soundtrack spiraling toward oblivion, the viewer begins to experience the descent of its characters, down to the very basement of rock-bottom. Aronofsky didn’t luck into providing us such discomfort, he knew exactly what he was doing.
The performances are career-defining for Ellen Burstyn and Jared Leto, especially Burstyn, whose A-Storyline informs and qualifies the Leto-Marlon Wayans-Jennifer Connelly B-Storyline, though the film wasn’t marketed that way. The Burstyn portions provide a context that helps Requiem rise above the relegatory classification of a “drug movie.” In a film that is less about plot, but structured like an addict’s state-of-mind, one thing happens after another until the final minutes transform themselves into an after-school-special from Hell. Harry (Leto) steals his mother Sara’s TV in order to pawn it, get some money and then get high. We can tell this is a regular occurance. Sara (Burstyn) has chained the TV to the radiator, not dissimilarly to how she herself is chained to that same television -- watching a strange mixture of self-help infomercials (featuring the flat-out brilliant Christopher McDonald as health-guru “Tappy Tibbons”). This little setup pays off well when Sara goes to the pawn shop owner (played by Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis) and he greets her by name. She buys back her TV a few minutes after Harry leaves with his drug money, and now both she and her son can get their fix. “When are you gonna call the cops?” the pawn shop owner sensibly asks. “He's my son.” Sara replies. We know what she means and we're all the more heartbroken for her.
While Harry has big dreams of becoming a wealthy drug dealer with friend and fellow junkie Tyrone (Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Connelly), Sara is revealed to be her own kind of addict, one whose experience will perhaps hit home harder for the average viewer. First it’s the television, but then it devolves into prescription weight-loss drugs, given to her by a doctor who noticeably never makes eye contact -- a moment like this usually shouts in a college-effort sort of way, “MESSAGE!” and yet it works within the tapestry of this movie. The decision to replace food with colored pills comes once Sara receives a scam-call promising her that she’s won an appearance on Tappy’s boob-tube power-hour. The little old ladies that sit on their lawn chairs in the front of Sara’s building make room for her in the center of the group -- she’s a “somebody” now. “I’m gonna be on television.” I cannot adequately express how tragically hopeful and pathetic a line like that sounds coming out of the mouth of Burstyn’s Sara... The film continues to go from melancholy to sad to downright decestating with moments of exhilarating depravity in between. Perhaps reflective of the highs and lows of addiction? I wouldn’t be surprised, as the filmmakers have certainly proven themselves clever enough by now.
As you can imagine, things go from bad to worse when Harry falls to pieces, both literally and figuratively, and Tyrone ends up in less friendly territory for a black junkie than Brooklyn could ever be. The final image of Marion leaves her smiling, but her ending is not a happy one. While the other characters are last seen with tears in their eyes, Marion’s smirk is somehow more painful. She’s down there at rock bottom, too, she just doesn’t know it yet. This sequence could powerfully make a case against the age-old adage, “ignorance is bliss.” And finally, Sara. Poor Sara. What little mind she has left is zapped away through electroshock “therapy.” By this point Ellen Burstyn has physically transformed and secured herself the Academy Award nomination she so deserved... The final thing worth mentioning is the screenplay, co-written by Aronofsky and the author of the source novel Hubert Selby Jr. The astounding part of this collaboration is how they were able to distill the cinematic elements of Selby’s novel, turning their screenplay into a blueprint for a purely visual experience -- something very uncommon when the originator of the words has a hand in the writing process. While Sara has a powerful speech (one that famously brought tears to the cameraman’s eyes), I can’t for the life of me remember one other piece of “crucial” dialogue. There’s a few inadvertently comedic refrains that have now entered the movie quote lexicon, but nothing expository. We experience this film, we absorb it, at times, we cower in fear from it. What restrain by Selby and Aronofsky, allowing the young director to then attack his second film with artistic acuity and cinematic ferociousness. The characters leave blood on the floor. We as the audience leave pools of tears and sweat. Aronofsky leaves his passion, still smoking like a freshly fired gun. One IMDb contributor titled their review “Awful and Essential” -- words you could use to describe drugs themselves for their users, their victims. After almost 20 years, Requiem for a Dream stands the test of time. Pure cinema.