Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: Requiem for a Dream

Ask any film-nut for a list of their favorite drug movies, and they will probably choose beloved genre stalwarts such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Drugstore Cowboy and Scarface

They will also probably nominate Darren Aronofsky's 2000 film Requiem for a Dream (trailer) as the best drug movie of them all.


Requiem chronicles its four main characters' dependence on drugs. 

Starry-eyed lovers Harry (Jared Leto) and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and their friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) are hooked on heroin, and plan to make a killing by selling a really good batch. Harry and Marion dream of opening their own clothing store, and Tyrone hopes to escape his life of poverty.

Meanwhile, Harry's widowed, TV-addicted mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) starts to take diet pills in order to fit into a favorite dress for a game show appearance.

My Take

The main problem I had with Requiem for a Dream was that it pities its characters instead of empathizing with them. Where my favorite drug movie Trainspotting shows its characters both enjoying and suffering in their lives of addiction, Requiem puts its heroes in such an excessively grim world that I can never understand or relate to them.

Choose life?

The Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever has a sobering sequence where the main character Flipper (Wesley Snipes) searches for his crack-addict brother (Samuel L. Jackson) in a derelict house full of zoned-out addicts lying around. Since Jungle Fever is portrayed through Flipper's non-addict perspective, he and we feel pity for the addicts because we can clearly see how messed up and divorced from reality they are. 

I felt bad for Requiem's characters in the same outsider way, but this film is supposed to convey the experience of addicts, not the experience of a non-addict looking at some poor druggies.

The whole reason why people stay on drugs is because the state of mind the drug grants them feels better than a harsh-seeming reality. Maybe if Requiem's filmmaking showed me what that state of mind looks like, I would be able to understand the characters more. If all I can see is the dinginess and sadness that they are escaping from, I feel like I'm missing out on an important piece of their big picture.

Trainspotting's protagonist Renton (Ewan McGregor) is energetic and loves being in the company of his gang of fellow addicts. He does have harsh encounters with death and disease, but the fact that he's also high all the time is reflected in the film's often ebullient mood and fast pace.

Trainspotting invited me into Renton's experience and showed me why he has made a lifestyle choice which I would otherwise find completely unrelatable. What was Requiem for a Dream trying to do, just tell me that drugs are bad? Okay, I already knew that.

Requiem starts out with well-written and -acted (albeit bleak) dialogue:

(Harry:) 'What is the big deal about being on television? Those pills you're taking will kill you before you even get on, for Chrissake.'

(Sara:) 'Big deal? ...I'm somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they'll all like me. I'll tell them about you, your father, how good he was to us...It's a reason to get up in the morning...It's a reason to smile...It makes tomorrow all right.'

Even though I didn't feel empathetic to these characters' drug plights, I believed in the actors' performances. However, as Requiem progressed I started to get yanked out of the movie by Aronofsky's heavy-handed, in-your-face directorial decisions.

For example, Sara constantly watches a confusing, abrasively obnoxious TV show in which a host (Christopher McDonald) yells things in a dark void while a studio audience chants mindlessly and loud noises and words flash everywhere. I got the feeling that Aronofsky was compiling everything he hates about TV and hammering my senses with the idea that television is indeed horrible and drug-like.


Things predictably worsen for our four Requiem protagonists, and the film's final act is one of the great gratuitously-miserable cinematic crescendoes.

I won't give away everything that happens, but as the madness starts Sara experiences intense hallucinations of people derisively laughing at her, and Harry develops a hideous black infection on and around the shooting-up vein in his forearm.

In case this isn't bad enough, Harry continues to inject into the same vein directly into the wound, which we of course have to watch in gruesome close-up.

Don't worry; all I'll show you is this reaction shot.

If Aronofsky had simply had Harry switch veins, he could have both spared us a revolting image and had his character make a logical decision. Unfortunately, that kind of restraint would have involved Aronofsky's least favorite activity: getting out of my face.

As things continue to get worse we hear an intensely weepy violin score (Clint Mansell in your face) and meet several ancillary characters that are little more than menacing caricatures: vocally racist cops, a lascivious psychiatrist, murdering drug dealers and an assortment of appallingly unethical doctors. 

Shouldn't the whole point of drug stories be that addicts are their own worst enemies? Why does the whole world have to turn evil to prove to me that drugs ruin lives?

I felt like the natural progression of events was being forced into such a grotesquely hellish, sadness-porn ending that I stopped believing the movie. The illusion constructed by all the filmmaking elements disappeared from my attention until all I could see was Aronofsky in my face.


Trainspotting is available on Blu-ray and DVD (including Collector's Edition and Director's Cut variants) at all major media outlets and online retailers. It is also available as a digital download and as a rental.

Screengrabs: Requiem for a Dream was produced by Artisan Entertainment, Thousand Words, Sibling Productions, Protozoa Pictures, Requiem for a Dream and Truth and Soul Pictures, in association with Industry Entertainment and Bendeira Entertainment. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures. 
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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