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Requiem for a Dream

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans

(Artisan; 2000)

Gonna Get High

Requiem for a Dream begins with a crime in progress. Harry (Jared Leto) is taking his mom’s tv set in order to sell it for drug money. It so happens that Mom—Sara (Ellen Burstyn)—is in the apartment, and she can’t help but complain just a little bit, even though it’s obvious that she’s afraid of Harry when he gets into this “mood,” this desperate need for a hit. And so she locks herself in her bedroom, while he paces and frets in the den, and the screen splits to show both, in intensive, anxious close-ups. Pressed up against the door, Sara hears what we see: about to wheel the tv out on its cart, Harry discovers that it’s chained to the wall and he explodes. Sara cringes and sighs, mumbling through the door, “It’s not for you, it’s for the robber!” Then, defeated, she slips her key under the door: you see it from both angles, hers and his. “Ma!” Harry yells, “Why you gotta make me feel so guilty?” She apologizes some more, the screen turns wide again, and whoosh—Harry’s gone, pushing the set down the burned-out daylight of the street with his buddy Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). As the credits run, a close fish-eye lens distorts them terrifically, simultaneously compressing and elongating their glinty-eyed expressions and about-to-be-happy grins. Everything around them is weird and hot and throbbing, as if the screen itself is announcing, “We’re gonna get high! We’re gonna get high!”


Requiem for a Dream is all about what it takes to get high—to purchase a high, maintain it, and survive it, and to deal with its consequences. The dream of the title—taken from the Hubert Selby Jr. novel on which director Darren Aronofsky based his screenplay, co-written with Selby—is monumental, irresistible, and unattainable, in other words, dead from jump. It’s a dream of consuming—consuming drugs, tv, sex, food—anything that will allow you, even for a second, to be someone else. It’s a dream of consuming yourself. And it’s addictive. Sara needs her tv (and will go down to the pawn shop to retrieve it just hours after Harry leaves it there) not because it provides her some passing distraction from the tedium of her lonely widow’s existence, but because it provides her with a spectacularly mobile surface onto which she projects her preferred self, her unknown, unreachable, and completely unafraid self. But as she discovers, this self—so fictional and so demanding—is very scary.


Requiem for a Dream shows this surface as the most nightmarish, most horrific and mean-spirited, of game shows, a monstrosity emceed by Tappy Tibbons (the fearless Christopher McDonald, looking lechier than ever, shot in harsh and grainy video). Requiem‘s superb website—more an interactive extension of the film’s themes than an information source—makes this nightmare remarkably immediate and provocative. The movie takes it in a few directions at once—as intimated by that early split screen, a device that is simultaneously diversionary and imperative, confusing and compelling—each concerning addiction. One part of the film follows Sara, others her son and his fellow junkies, Tyrone and Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). Almost immediately, it’s clear that Sara is quite addicted to The Tappy Tibbons Show: again and again, she sits with her remote in hand, swallowing boxed chocolates, a ritual that has left her frumpy and out of sorts for years. When she gets a phone call saying she’s “already won!” a place on the show, she panics: she hardly knows how to be a “winner!’ Then, ever the survivor, she gears herself up, believing that she has to get back to the dress size she was when her husband was still alive and her high-school-aged son was not an addict.


Desperate for a reason “to get up in the morning,” Sara makes a fateful decision: she gets a prescription for diet pills. From here, her relationships to her tv set and her refrigerator—the two largest and most insistent appliances in her small Coney Island apartment—shift gradually but drastically. These changes in her emotional life are indicated by increasingly subjective and hallucinatory camera work. At first she feels empowered by her willful weight loss, her ability to refuse the refrigerator’s surrealistic thudding and throbbing—and she moves in time-lapsed fast motion, scrubbing down the apartment, grinding her teeth until they hurt, popping pills two at a time. Eventually and inevitably, she finds herself “acclimated” to the pills, and again she’s bored and restless, only this time, with a grisly speedy-vengeance. At this point the television—which Harry has replaced with a wide-screen stereo version—is no longer her source of comfort and diversion, but a derisive reminder that she’s still stuck in her apartment, alone.


Loneliness works a different nerve for Harry, Marion, and Tyrone, who begin the film in the full flush of hope, imagining that they’ll sell drugs just long enough to stake Marion’s potential career as a fashion-designer—you don’t see much of her work, though you do see her working, messing about with papers and pencils on the floor of the place she shares with Harry, for now paid for by her wealthy, upset, and unseen parents. Harry and Tyrone map out their future, then begin stuffing money away in a hole in the wall, allowing repeated shots of their faces pressed up to the camera-posing-as-the hole, as their hands feel inside, grabbing for the shoe box that holds their wads of bills. Business is good, and soon, the box is stuffed full, allowing the three young friends a moment of satisfaction and sense of well-being in the world that almost matches what they feel when they’re high. Almost. But it’s the unsatisfied part that gets the better of them all, one by one. Inevitably, they start to use their product rather than sell it, then to distrust one another, and then to distrust themselves.


While the four central characters in Requiem may have different addictions, they share a similar basic need: they seek sensation and escape, a palpable connection to something other than themselves, a thrill. Requiem‘s junkies-on-the-low-road-to-hell is not news. But Aronofsky—who made the remarkable Pi a couple of years ago, has here concocted a spectacular and grueling experience that gets at the simultaneous joy and panic of addiction, showing the pleasures of getting high, what’s at stake in maintaining that kind of paradoxical remove from and immersion in the sensory stimulation your body can afford. Requiem captures the thrill of ritual (cooking, shooting, inhaling, and an added set of images—blood whooshing and arteries pulsing) through Drugstore Cowboy-like flash-close-ups, and it also shows the insanity of the buy—on hearing that a “new shipment” has hit town, Harry and Tyrone (and seemingly hundreds of other skinny, raggedy dopers) literally go to a Waldbaums to make the buy, clamoring and anxious at the back loading dock as the door roars up to reveal a truck full of product and a shady fellow who holds way too much control over who gets what and when.


Hysterical and unreal, this scene is actually one of the film’s more restrained metaphors: in externalizing the addicts’ internal pain, craving, and self-consumption, some scenes become truly difficult to watch, which is to the film’s credit. Early moments showing glee and a kind of singular rapture contrast with later ones, when Harry’s needle-arm becomes blackly infected and Marion agrees to perform in a horrific sex show in exchange for drugs (a deal arranged by the distressingly seductive Keith David). At first, Harry and Marion inhabit a conventionally pleasant outdoors—they stroll on the boardwalk, they smile in the sunshine. As their habit gets the better of them, they slip into dark interiors, unable to reach one another. When Harry and Tyrone leave on a run to Florida (their New York connections having dried up), Marion excruciating sense of abandonment, by her lover and by her fix.


For all the horror effectively evoked in scenes showing Marion and Sara alone, the descent shared by Harry and Tyrone is dreamlike and frightening, insidiously inviting. All four protagonists end up the victims of systems—Sara by television (she goes to the NY offices for the show that sent her the letter, and the receptionist and staff can hardly know what to do with her—ravaged and incoherent) and doctors (who stick her with needles and commit her to electric shock therapy); Marion by her moneyed background (the folks with whom she most debases herself are reminiscent of this background, hypocritical and careless); and Harry and Tyrone by cops and prison guards, when they’re picked up on their way “down,” literally (to Florida) and figuratively.


Throughout the film, their friendship is related by small, physical details rather than more typical guy posturing, by “soft” exchanges, shared glances and brief smiles that are lost to them once they’re separated and behind bars. Frail and pale (he lost much weight for the role), Leto nonetheless has a kind of steel in his performance, and Marlon Wayans reveals in Requiem an intensity and skilled restraint that you might not expect from him. Both Tyrone and Harry are haunted by visions of their mothers (they’re the only two troubled by embodied representations of their emotional pasts, as Marion’s parents and Sara’s dead husband never appear), and both succumb to melancholy and self-hatred at their inabilities to live up to expectations and hopes. That this sense of sadness and failure pervades Requiem is somewhat ironic, for it is a highly accomplished, quite brilliant movie, one that will likely leave you feeling devastated and exhilarated at the same time.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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