Requiem For A Dream

“We got a winner!” —Tappy Tibbons infomercial, Requiem For A Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream is about a lot of things: addiction, exploitation, destitution, loneliness, institutional corruption, the toxins of the media and our get-rich-quick culture, and the false promises of the American Dream itself. But it’s mainly about visceral experience, in provoking audiences to feel these themes rather than sit back comfortably as the characters slowly circle the drain. It’s as powerful an anti-drug movie as you could ever wish to see—even those brief moments of heroin-fueled ecstasy are poised on the edge of oblivion—but except in maybe one scene, very little is vocalized. It’s also one of those movies where all the charges critics have leveled against it—that it’s excessive, enervating, indulgent, and relentlessly unpleasant—are subject to the Pee-wee Herman defense: Aronofsky meant to do that. 

When I first saw Requiem For A Dream in a screening room before it hit theaters in 2000, my A.V. Club cohort Keith Phipps leaned over to me during the closing credits and said, “Well, that’s the end of Darren Aronofsky’s career.” Keith was wrong about that—even Aronofsky’s subsequent film, The Fountain, a classic career-killer if there ever was one, couldn’t do it—but it wasn’t so outrageous a prophecy, given how punishing, uncompromising, and commercially negligent the film appeared to be. Even Aronofsky doubters, of which I include myself in some respects, have to concede the go-for-broke daring that animates Requiem For A Dream. He’s pushing audiences to the very edge of what they will tolerate (and going well over, for some) and he doesn’t seem to care about the consequences. There’s integrity in that.

On the other hand, no matter how grim the film gets, it’s still an oddly palatable experience for those who can stomach it. Why? In part because of Clint Mansell’s magnificent score, which is more integral to the film’s success than perhaps any other single contribution—or, at the very least, it’s the unifying force that harmonizes every other element. A mesmerizing swirl of foreboding, neoclassical strings (courtesy of Kronos Quartet), the main theme, called “Lux Aeterna,” is a wellspring of urgency, beauty, and dramatic power that Aronofsky and his first-rate editor, Jay Rabinowitz, employ like a suite. As the four main characters are driven further into hopelessness and isolation, Mansell’s music makes their miserable destinies whole, even sparing them a little tenderness in the process. (The ubiquity of the score in film trailers, videogames, and sports-highlight packages still takes some getting used if you know its original context.) 

With its grinding, mechanical repetition—in some respects, it could be mistaken for Philip Glass’ work—Mansell’s score also enforces the self-destructive routines at the heart of Requiem For A Dream. Working from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel (Selby also co-scripted, with Aronofsky), the film obsesses over the daily rituals of addicts as they hit the peaks and valleys between one hit and the next. Set largely in the bleak ruins of Coney Island—exactly the sort of once-proud/now-faded site Aronofsky would return to later for Mickey Rourke’s big scene in The Wrestler—the story follows four fringe-dwellers in freefall. Three of them are heroin and cocaine addicts: Harry (Jared Leto) and his buddy Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) plot to use their drug connections to convert diluted smack into profit, provided they don’t shoot up too much of the inventory first. Harry talks of running away with his coke-crazy girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), a rich-girl-gone-bad who aspires to be a designer. (Her access to money comes mostly through her relationship with a sleazy “therapist” who expects something in trade.)

Though Leto, Wayans, and Connelly all do fine work (especially the latter two, who go far out on different limbs), the three young characters are sketchily drawn, and perhaps that’s by design. These are creatures of want, with a short past and an uncertain future that’s determined entirely by their immediate needs. The drug-pushing idea is the closest they could ever come to entrepreneurship, because it involves procuring something that also happens to feed their addiction. By contrast, Harry’s mother Sara, played by an unhinged Ellen Burstyn, would be happily sunning herself with all the other Jewish widows in her building were she not gobsmacked by a tragic confluence of circumstances. Left alone by her dead husband and by Harry, who only stops by periodically to steal her things for drug money, Sara gets sucked in by a phone call promising her a spot on a game show. Sara sees this as a chance to show off the raven-haired beauty she once was, but in order to lose the weight necessary to squeeze into her red dress, she starts taking diet pills by the fistful. In this scene, Harry visits his mother with news of a gift—a brand-new TV set to replace one he stole, the ultimate in ironic presents—but he knows enough about drugs to pick up on the telltale grinding of her teeth:

That scene between Harry and his mother (which goes on for several minutes before and after the above clip), close to the halfway mark of the film, is an anomaly, the one time that Aronofsky puts his caffeinated style on hold and really allows the actors to take over. We see the concerned son, himself on the verge of catastrophe, recognizing from personal experience the powerful forces threatening his mother. And then there’s Sara, in the theatrics that nearly won Burstyn an Oscar, laying bare the toll her loneliness and advancing age have taken on her, and the sense of purpose and direction her crash diet has given her. “I like thinking about the red dress and the television and you and your father,” she says. “Now when I get in the sun, I smile.” It’s a poignant speech, made more so by the sense that we’ve reached a tipping point where the short-term gains—Sara’s 25-pound weight loss, Harry’s successful drug operation—are about to crumble before our eyes. Burstyn gets all the attention for her performance in this scene, and rightly so, but Leto’s eyes are the real bellwether; he arrives as a big-shot in a taxi, pushing the fiction of legitimate success on his mother, but leaves as a child gripped in panic. 

As affecting as that scene is, I’m happy it’s the only one of its kind in the movie. For as much scrupulous attention as he pays to sound and visual design, Aronofsky has always had a weakness for dramatic obviousness, of allowing the characters to just come out and say what we’ve already been observing about them. This one cathartic outpouring in the middle of Requiem For A Dream stands in sharp relief to the jittery freneticism of the rest of the movie; any more risks underlining points that Aronofsky’s style drives home emphatically from the start. Critics of the film have jumped on Aronofsky’s eagerness to rub viewers’ faces in the most extreme forms of human misery and degradation—the climax, in particular, is like a symphony of agony—but Pee-wee Herman defense aside, there’s more to it than that. Aronofsky’s cinematic bag of tricks (the fast and slo-mo, the split-screens, the persistent quick-fire montages) shows an extraordinary sense of order that rules his characters’ lives. It’s natural to believe that addicts live in chaos when in fact the opposite is true; their days are dictated by patterns of behavior that become unsustainable over time, as their bodies wear down or the money runs out.

Requiem For A Dream opens with Tappy Tibbons, an infomercial demagogue, shouting “We got a winner!” to some unseen lucky contestant out in TV land. Though Aronofsky puts too fine a point on it, the film decries a snake-oil society that promises instant gratification—euphoric highs, get-rich-quick schemes, 15 minutes of fame—and winds up turning us all into junkies. These addictions can be as mild as the cups of coffee Sara drains regularly, or as dangerous as the heroin injections that blacken Harry’s inner elbow with infection, but Aronofsky draws them together as a single human impulse that’s enflamed by a cold, predatory culture. Everyone pays a price in the end, and here it’s a grotesque, terrible one. 

Next week: Man Bites Dog
And then…
The Newest Cult Canon month
February 4: Let The Right One In
February 11: The Fall
February 18: Synecdoche, New York
February 25: The House Of The Devil

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