In 2000, I was nineteen, and had been going to the movies for at least thirteen of those years. My parents were fairly liberal regarding what I could and could not see at certain ages because they had confidence in my ability to separate fiction from the real world. In other words, I had been seeing R-rated films for almost a decade; it was not as if challenging films were new to me. And I had enjoyed many hundreds of movies before 2000, before I went by myself after work one Saturday afternoon and bought a ticket to this little movie that I had read an article about just hours before, a movie from a new promising director who had made a splash at Sundance in 1998 with something called Pi. I loved many films of many different kinds, and I was deeply affected by some. Shawshank Redemption, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Goodfellas, Dances with Wolves… I had my favorites, and I had films like these mentioned here that stirred my emotional side. But before 2000, before the lights went dark in the Inwood Theater in North Dallas, I had always let the experience simply wash over me in a much broader sense.
Before this Saturday afternoon, I could not have broken down scenes, angles and camera shots and what they meant or said or told the audience, or themes that were not at a surface level of a picture. I was a changed man leaving that theater later that Saturday evening in 2000.
As I drove back to my house that I shared with two college roommates at the time, some 45 minutes away, I can tell you for certain that I don’t remember passing a single other car. The roads could have been empty and I would not have noticed. I was punch drunk. What had I just seen? I don’t remember another time, before or after that late afternoon in 2000, being affected so deeply, so profoundly, by a film, by a collection of images and moments on the screen. I had to see it again, and I had to bring others the next time. I saw it the next day with a roommate, the next weekend again with another friend. I bought the soundtrack because, oh the soundtrack. What an important layer. I read the book, written by Hubert Selby, I replayed shots and moments and effects and sequences over and over in my head until I could watch it again on DVD. And when I bought the DVD, I watched it again, and then re-watched it with the director’s commentary. Requiem for a Dream changed me as a student of film. I enrolled in my first college film course the following spring.
Requiem for a Dream is a film about addiction. But not simply drug addiction, as emphasized by one character. Harry and Tyrone, played by Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans, respectively, are two drug-addled young men who, in the opening scene, are stealing Harry’s mother’s television set so that they can take it to a local pawnbroker in Long Island, get twenty bucks, and score some heroin. Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is afraid of Harry and hides in the closet. She lost her husband some time ago, and lives a pitiful and lonely existence in a small apartment with only her television shows and her chocolates to keep her company. She will go down to the pawnbroker later and buy her TV back because, well, she does love Harry still.
Harry and Tyrone have bigger plans than carting stolen televisions back and forth for a quick score; they want to buy a pound of pure heroin, cut it up, and start to sell it. Then they will find their way onto easy street. Heroin is not their only addiction; money has its power as well. Harry’s girlfriend, Marion, played by Jennifer Connelly, perhaps the deepest into heroin addiction of all three, is fully on board with this plan. They buy the drugs, cut them, and begin to really rake in the cash. They buy new apartments, new things, and they don’t use too much of their supply so things are moving along rather well. Of course, this cannot last.
Meanwhile, Sara spends her days obsessing over a strange game show/self-help program on television. One afternoon she gets a call and inadvertently deciphers that the person on the other end has told her she has won a spot on her favorite show. A closer listen will tell you that she has merely been entered into a sweepstakes for a chance to win, something very standard, but that is not how Sara understands it. She tells her friends in the building about it, and she decides that but one outfit will work for her appearance: the red dress that she wore to Harry’s high school graduation. The red dress becomes a new obsession for Sara as it brings back a time of happiness and emotional fulfillment in her life that she no longer has. But Sara’s other addiction, sweets, has made it virtually impossible for her to fit into the dress. She tries to diet, nothing sticks. Her friend in the building tells her that her daughter got prescribed a series of pills and “poof,” her weight was gone. Sara gets the doctor’s number and begins taking diet pills. The pills work swimmingly at first. Sara cleans her whole house in a fantastic montage sequence, is spry and lively again, and the weight begins to rapidly fall off. This, of course, is not the healthiest route to take.
The only other time the story of the three kids and Sara cross other than the opening sequence is when Harry comes to visit Sara. Things are going well for Harry, Marion, and Tyrone, so Harry decides to buy his mother a new television. He wants things to be better with them. When he arrives it takes an addict like Harry no time to figure out that his mother is on something as she flies around the house and offers food that she doesn’t have because her refrigerator is now empty. The scene where the pendulum in the narrative swings, the turning point where these characters, who have reached the mountain top, have but one direction to go, is when Harry notices Sara grinding her teeth, and she tells him why she loves to feel the way she does on these pills. The moment is truly heartbreaking, and exemplifies Sara's loneliness. And aside from being the pivot point in the arc of these characters, it is also the most powerful moment for Burstyn in the film, and one of the single most amazing speeches by an actress.
From this point, there is a shooting, an arrest, and a turf war breaks out on the streets, most of which is hinted at and not shown. But the streets begin to dry up. Nobody is looking for heroin anymore as things have become too dangerous. The business for the three kids begins to suffer, and they start using up their own supply more regularly. Desperate times grow more desperate as the story goes into the winter. Harry and Marion begin to drift, as their unabashed love for each other begins to shows signs that maybe it was a shared love of the drug and not of each other. Harry has to ask Marion to get money from her family psychiatrist, even though she may have to do unspeakable things to get it. Times are this desperate. Things begin to unravel at a rapid clip for these three kids.
Sara has also grown immune to the pills. Her body has adjusted to the dosage and she no longer has the energy and fervor she once did. The nurse assures her it is normal, but what is the point of these pills without the great feeling? Sara takes it upon herself to up the dosage, taking two at a time at first. Things immediately start to happen to Sara, frightening things. The refrigerator, her nemesis that was used for comedic effect earlier, begins to move on its own, or so she thinks. She takes another pill, then another, and her sanity soon fades. She goes back to the doctor and, in one of the more frightening scenes, explains her situation as noises rattle her and time speeds up and slows down in her head with no sense of reality. The sequence, filmed with a distorted lense, takes on the aspect of a nightmare that Sara cannot escape. She returns to her apartment, and takes more and more of these pills. She is skeletal, insane, the red dress now falling off her bones. Nobody is there to help her. The feeling of helplessness carries over to the audience as we watch this innocent life being destroyed through addiction and unhinged madness.
The story has an easily recognizable, almost standard arc. Broken into four chapters of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, the direction of these four characters is crystal clear. But as told through Aronofsky’s eye, Requiem for a Dream becomes a pulsating, visionary tale of addiction and self destruction that is technically revelatory. The obsessive kinetics of the camera and the energy of Aronofsky’s storytelling are evident in a number of sequences. For instance, any time a character indulges in their drug of choice, be it heroin or chocolate or television or diet pills or pot or speed, the moment is emphasized by a series of close cuts edited together to heighten the moment of payoff. These montages have since been coined “hip-hop montages” by some, and almost work like the nerve endings of the story that are tapped and toyed with to give the audience that sense of quick, static exhilaration that comes with indulgence.
There is also a recurring dream sequence in the film that I still struggle to break down. It is Harry, standing on a pier, looking towards the ocean. At the end of the pier in front of the water is Marion, with her back to him, wearing his mother’s red dress. There are obvious oedipal overtones to Harry’s dream, but I feel like there is something more at play in these moments, something I can still not quite put my finger on. Perhaps the ambiguity of the moment is Aronofsky’s plan.
The technical side of Requiem for a Dream is quite mind blowing, but would be nothing without two other vital elements. The first of these is the score, by Clint Mansel and the Kronos Quartet. Mansel, who has scored all of Aronofsky’s films, delivers a score that is, for lack of a better less cliché term, haunting. But there is no other way to describe it. The main overture of the film you have heard regardless of whether or not you have seen the film. It has been overused in film trailers ever since, and it gets my blood boiling to see or hear someone refer to the music as “that music from The Lord of the Rings trailer.” Without Mansel and the Quartet, there are moments in Requiem that would not be near as memorable or, at times, nearly as frightening.
The other vital part of the story is, of course, the performances. Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly give two fully realized characterizations of addicts in love with their shared addiction. In one telling scene, the two are lying naked in bed devoting their love to each other endlessly. Instead of simply showing these two lying in the same bed with the same single camera, Aronofsky chooses to split the screen and show each individual in their own split frame. This creates a sense of disconnect created by the drugs, a disconnect that rears its ugly head before things are over. And Marlon Wayans as Tyrone is quite surprising. I never would have imagined, and still cannot, that Wayans had this sort of range in him. Tyrone is given his own back story revolving around memories of his mother, and a deep-seeded yearning to just be lying in her lap as a young boy again.
These three kids are all phenomenal in their roles, but it is Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb that anchors the film. Burstyn is earth shattering in her performance, a performance that should have beaten America’s Sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in 2000 for Best Actress is the Academy had any guts at all. Sara is the character with whom we sympathize the most. Her addictions are understandable, and her loneliness draws us in more than the eager greed of the three kids. When she begins to lose her mind, and the hallucinations and delusions fully consume Sara, you can feel the sadness and the desperation to help her in the pit of your stomach. At least I could…
Requiem for a Dream is like a punch to the stomach, but is a picture that is told with some much savage beauty that it is impossible to see and absorb everything in one sitting. I will never forget walking out of that theater in 2000, alone, getting in my car, and not even turning on the radio. I drove in silence, trying my damndest to fully comprehend what I had just seen. It changed the way I look at cinema; it opened my eyes to a new world of storytelling. Perhaps I had seen this world of storytelling some time before 2000, but I would never again overlook it, not after that solemn drive home.