Requiem for a Dream (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Every year, there seems to be one film that kicks you in the stomach and leaves your head reeling. In 1999, it was Tim Roth's profoundly disturbing, unforgettable The War Zone. This year, it's Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, one of the most forceful anti-drug narratives ever to be committed to celluloid. To call this movie a cautionary tale would be to apply a label that is too tame -- Requiem for a Dream presents the darkest take imaginable on a story of hopes and dreams shattered by drug addiction. There's no preaching or sermonizing here, just an almost-clinical depiction of lives laid to waste. This is not a film for the weak of mind or soul. Even in the midst of the whirlwind of a film festival, when I was seeing four films a day and the tendency was for everything to blur into a continuum, this one stuck out, demanding attention and rumination. It is a force to be reckoned with.

As he proved with his art house success, Pi, Aronofsky is not afraid to take chances, and Requiem for a Dream represents a big one. Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr., this movie was granted the MPAA's NC-17 "kiss of death" for its uncompromising portrayal of the depths to which some people will sink to get their fix. No punches are pulled, no images "prettied up". Undaunted by the MPAA's hypocritical and senseless stance, Aronofsky appealed the rating, rightfully claiming that cutting any portion of the film would dilute, if not outright destroy, its message. The appeal was denied, but Artisan, in a move that affirms their commitment to art over commercialism (at least in this case) has decided to release the film unrated.

Every actor with a major role - Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and Marlan Wayans - should be commended not only for their strength of performance but for the courage they exhibit in putting themselves on the line the way Aronofsky requires. They are artists in the truest sense of the word, sublimating their egos and committing themselves fully to the needs of the project. Each of them is shown in a state of physical and mental degradation. They are depicted doing the kinds of things that many higher profile celebrities would not permit. Connelly especially goes all out, appearing naked from the waist down in one shot and participating in a lesbian orgy scene. (Those looking for an erotic charge from Connelly's nudity should see one of her previous outings - Requiem for a Dream is far too disturbing to do anything for the libido.)

The movie starts slowly, introducing each of the characters and establishing their relationships. Visually, Aronofsky tries for something a little different here, employing a split-screen approach that neither enhances nor detracts from the narrative. (It isn't around long enough to become distracting.) The central figure is Harry (Jared Leto), a young man who lives hand-to-mouth because nearly every cent he saves, earns, or steals goes towards buying something he can inject into his veins. His best friend and business partner is Tyrone (Marlon Wayans, playing it straight and doing so effectively), who shares many of Harry's aspirations. His girlfriend is Marion (Connelly), who, like Harry and Tyrone, is an addict. The fourth significant player is Harry's widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), who is as addicted to television as Harry is to drugs. When she learns that a marketing company may be able to offer her a spot in the studio audience of a live TV broadcast, she decides to lose weight. Following a visit to the doctor's, she is on her way to dropping 30 pounds and becoming hooked on the uppers and downers that comprise her diet.

For these characters, drugs gradually take the place of everything else - food, sex, aspirations, and even the day-to-day impulse to live. They become the sole sources of pain and pleasure. They form the core of relationships. Would these people have anything to do with one another if they weren't bound by the ceremony of the injection? Perhaps it's not that way in the beginning, but the life-destroying power of drugs is insidious and undeniable, and the spiral of all-consuming addiction is what Aronofsky has captured with unnerving effectiveness.

Everyone in this film has their own dreams - or at least they do before their gut-churning, animalistic need for the next fix has destroyed their capacity for reason. These aren't grandiose dreams - they're the kinds of things we all hope for during the small hours of the night when we lie awake wondering how our lives might change for the better. For Harry and Tyrone, it's to be able to make one big score and build a financial nest egg. For Marion, it's to start her own dress business and live with Harry. And for Sara, it's to appear on her favorite TV show and to be proud of her son. When the movie opens, each of these dreams can be realized. No one has progressed beyond the point of no return. However, by the time the end credits roll, they have become nebulous and unfulfillable. Requiem for a Dream is bleak, offering little in the way of respite in its depiction of the consequences of addiction (chief of which is the unwillingness of addicts to seek help). Like Trainspotting, its portrait of the effects of drugs on the mind and body is uncompromising. Unlike the British film, there is minimal grim humor for comic relief purposes.

Requiem for a Dream certainly isn't the first recent motion picture to offer an unpleasant picture of what happens when an individual becomes hooked on drugs, but its quadruple character study is unsparing. This is in large part because of the brilliant final fifteen minutes, which is a tour de force of direction and editing. Employing hundreds of cuts, Aronofsky careens back and forth between his four main players, showing their increasingly dire circumstances and allowing those to escalate to a brutal climax. This is easily the most startling and memorable extended sequence in any film this year, and, for raw power, it exceeds any scene I can recall from other films about addiction. Don't be fooled by the passively poetic title; there's nothing serene or restful about this motion picture. Requiem for a Dream gets under your skin and stays there.

Requiem for a Dream (United States, 2000)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2000
Ranked #51 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2000-10-06
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Drugs, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1