There are definitely SPOILERS of plot points in this review. That said, these spoilers may actually help you get through the film if you have not yet seen it. You decide……
Darren Aronofsky’s second feature film, Requiem for a Dream was the follow up to his bold and original debut Pi. Both films had experimental elements of filmmaking that helped Aronofsky make a name for himself as one of the young up-and-coming Indie directors at a time where the Indie circuit was thriving with exposure. Both of these films are dark in composition and both contain characters struggling with identity. Pi is about one individual and Requiem… has four main players; it is this expansion of character development that gives Aronofsky’s experimental vision as a filmmaker a solid place in cinema history. Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece that evokes the falsehood of the American Dream, a concept that is held up only by archetypes containing no real road map as to how to be achieved. Although the film ostensibly shows drug addiction to be the demise of our four main characters, Aronofsky is arguing that the false advertisement campaign that is the American Dream is really the root cause for the film’s characters’ dreadful demises.
Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is a sixty-something widow living alone in her Coney Island apartment left to her life of eating sugary snacks and watching her favorite infomercial on her rundown television set. Of course she can only do this after she routinely buys back the TV from the pawn shop her son Harry (Jared Leto) sells it to with his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) so they can get some cash to buy heroin and shoot up. Harry’s beautiful girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), like Harry and Tyrone, is a twenty-something whose parents put her up in a nice apartment with a steady stipend so long as she sees her scuzzy psychiatrist regularly – he has ulterior motives for their visits. Marion uses heroin as well.
Sara longs for the days when her husband Seymour was alive and when Harry was in high school. These were times that gave her a purpose and she felt like a useful cog in society – serving her husband and making her son smile. Now she resorts to eating food to fill the void left by Seymour’s death and Harry living elsewhere.
Harry and Tyrone are floundering and trying to find different ways to spend their summer days. Sure they can get high and go to the boardwalk, but they want to make some money like everyone is supposed to in the United States – They hope respect will soon follow.
Marion aspires for more than just money from her parents and with some loving nudges from Harry, she decides to pursue her love for all things fashion and works towards opening a boutique selling the clothes she has designed.
Sara gets duped one day with a phone call from the parent company of the infomercial she watches religiously. A man on the other end tells her she has “won” a chance to be on television. This prompts Sara to start watching what she eats so she can fit into her red dress that Seymour loved her in, and she can then wear it on television. When her initial attempts to lose the weight are not doing the trick, she visits a doctor who hastily prescribes her to diet pills. These pills help her lose the weight steadily as she uses the zipper on the back of the red dress as a barometer for her progress.
Harry and Ty decide to turn their habit into an enterprise. They get enough money together to buy some heroin, cut it, and begin to sell it making money hand over fist and become well on their way to their goal of buying a pound of pure, which they say over and over again. Pound of Pure refers to heroin, but also is an alliterative phrase just like many of the commercially marketed phrases people cling to on their journey to the American Dream.
Marion, with Harry’s support, begins to work hard on her clothing designs and eventually Harry is able to lease a small commercial space for her business. This is good for Marion not only because she is on her way to realizing her dream, but she does not have to rely on seeing her shrink to get money from her parents.
Sara begins to lose the weight rapidly, but also her mind slowly. There’s a scene where she goes to visit the doctor for a checkup and prescription refill. Aronofsky keeps a tight shot of Sara’s face in clear focus, while the doctor is seen in the blurry background and not paying too much attention to Sara. She tries to convey her concerns about the pills’ effect on her body, but the doctor pays her no mind and simply hands her a new prescription.
Sara continues the normal pill regiment until she does not feel the same speedy effects as before – she begins doubling and tripling her dose whenever she wants.
When Harry and Tyrone have saved enough money to secure their Pound of Pure, Ty has a face to face meeting with a local heroin supplier in the back of his limo. Then the meeting goes awry and a shootout ensues forcing Ty to run away from the limo with the blood of the supplier all over him. Ty gets arrested and Harry has to bail him out with their hard earned cash, which nearly wipes them out.
This, of course, sets Marion back too, and now all that seems to matter to any of them is scoring dope so they can shoot it and feel normal, at least for a little while.
Aronofsky and his crew pay special attention to the backdrop of every scene. During the good times of the film, when the characters are all still functioning drug users, the lighting and music is very soothing and peaceful. Aronofsky creates stock (quick) montages for when our characters are getting their fix. Although these may seem redundant after awhile, I assure you the use of the montages is not only apropos to the exposition of the character’s drug use, but also helps cement the parallel of drug use and the American Dream archetypes – Which are made up of quippy slogans and fast shortcuts to wealth….allegedly.
Aronofsky’s unique camera direction set to a chilling score helps to encapsulate the true horrors experienced by an addict. The best examples of this are during the last 15 minutes of the film which is a juxtaposition of all four characters final spill on their own downward spirals.
Sara ends up in a mental institution after she begins wandering the streets in her red dress. Eventually she gets shock treatment to “cure” her ailment.
Tyrone takes Harry to a hospital to have his arm looked at due to a massive infection Harry gets from injecting heroin into the same hole in his arm nearly every time. It is there where they get arrested and sentenced to hard work detail in prison. Due to Harry’s infected arm, he is deemed unfit to work and is moved to the hospital ward of the prison where we see his arm amputated in a gruesome scene….
Harry using the same vein can be viewed as a metaphor to someone burning the candle at both ends to realize their dreams…eventually the candle is small and useless.
Ty remains on hard work detail under the watch of racist guards in prison.
Marion becomes a sex worker in order to continually get her dope.
This passage of the film serves to not only put on display the ultimate doom of the four characters, but with its masterful editing really gives an honestly artful representation of the tipping point that segues to the final stages of a downward spiral. Hard to watch, but I found my eyes peeled to the screen seeing it again. Because we care about these characters, we are able to endure this starkly depressing passage. Also the score helps to guide us through this 15 minutes with haunting strings and ambiguous tone that drives the action as we the viewer wait for the requisite happy ending that never comes for our four heroes….
All of these characters are normal enough and I believe that is the point. Like Paul Thomas Anderson did in his terrific film Boogie Nights, Aronofsky is showing us regular people trying to do regular things in the shadows of the “normal” people trying to do “normal” things. Strip away the minutiae, and Requiem for a Dream is delivering a story about people chasing the elusive American Dream; it is only with judgment that one can look at these people and say that what they do is not socially acceptable.
Knowing how the plot unfolds for these four characters whom we care so much about, you may ask yourself, Why would I want to watch such horror? The best answer I can give to this is Aronofsky’s filmmaking prowess; he is simply on fire in his execution of telling this dark tale. Seemingly going for broke with nearly every scene, he paints a bleak picture with the use of quick camera movements and bright colors (two characteristics usually reserved for big budget action films). Another movie with a major drug theme that used similar filming tactics is the wonderful film from 1987, Less than Zero. That film had more to do with how an addict acts as the rope in a game of tug-o-war between those closest to him on either side: One side who is trying to help him get off the drugs, and the other side who is able to easily convince him to keep using. Both films are supported by their unique filming techniques to the drug addiction film genre, both have regrettable outcomes.
It must be noted that Ellen Burstyn gives one of the greatest performances of her stellar career in this film. When I saw Requiem… for the first time in the theater I was hanging on her every word and movement. In a role that could’ve easily been perceived as campy or too over-the-top, Burstyn never hits a false note, playing Sara as an innocent who does not know she is an addict, because how can she be if a doctor prescribed her the drugs? There is a scene in particular where Burstyn really shines: Sitting alone in her apartment and hallucinating (due to her overuse of diet pills), her thinner self and her favorite TV show host (Christopher McDonald) morph out of the TV set and make fun of Sara’s apartment. Watch how Burstyn as Sara is forced to succumb to the judgement of her TV-self, reminding us how we all take cues from television in determining our self worth.
The three other performances turned in by the young actors are flawless as well, and definitely deserve special mention, but it is Burstyn who steals the show.
We see each of the four characters curl up into the fetal position at the end of their respective downward spirals (at the end of the 15 minute montage). I think Aronofsky is trying to show here that most human beings will regress to childlike emotion in times of great crisis. I think his broader point here is to indicate that we retreat to the times that make us feel most comfortably in crisis, so do not lose that ideal in the first place. There is a time to be an adult and a time to be firm, but we never have to lose our innocence in the process. If you lose it, you will end up back at it in the end anyway, because crisis is inevitable. Aronofsky knows that if one is addicted to drugs, crisis is not too far off. The drug addiction in this film serves to indicate a need for innocence by our characters. They have trouble holding on to it in search of their dreams, so they bring it on by the use of drugs. Aronofsky is encouraging us to chase our dreams, but to do so by playing things close to the chest and without the use of the generic blueprint that is the American Dream…..