Sunday Millenium Movie: Requiem for A Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2001)

Every Sunday, I’ll be exhuming a review from my archives of a film I think is important. Opinion welcome. 

I first saw this twelve years ago, at Exeter Picturehouse. And frankly, its scarier than any slash n’ gore horror flick. 

Requiem for a Dream falls into the category of “films you only need to see once to make an impact.” Based upon Hubert Selby Jr’s cult 1976 novel of the same title, it follows four individuals – Sarah Goldfarb, her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion and best friend Tyrone – all of whom are determined to pursue their own version of the American Dream. But, the script warns – achieving a dream can turn into a nightmare. And in the case of this film, its a brutal, graphic one.  The sheer horror and misery of human desperation has never been displayed as graphically as this. 

It starts in a normal domestic setting – widow Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is settling to watch TV when her son Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Damon Wayans) burst in, taking the set. This immediately highlights the tension between mother and son – Harry is a drug addict who needs to pawn possessions for money, whilst Sara is a TV addict, dreaming of the day she gets to appear on the shows she watches. As an watcher, do you feel contempt for these people – or pity? Its an uneasy balance which remains for the rest of the film. 

As it progresses, Marion (Jennifer Connolly) is introduced. As the foursome is now complete, Aronofsky splits the script into two stories – Sara has received a letter saying she will be on a TV show, and decides she needs to diet to fit into her special red dress; Harry and Tyrone decide on a way to get money to support their, and Marion’s habits. And at first, everyone seems to be succeeding. But then the cracks begin to appear: Sara thinks the fridge is talking to her; her son and girlfriend are becoming paranoid. And all more dependent. 

The most chilling scene in this film, to me, is not the actual scenes of drug use, or the later scenes of institutionalisation and treatment. It is the scene in the kitchen, when a seemingly healthy Harry visits his mother to inform her of his success. Part of this scene is in silence, as he watches her behaviour. The subtle movements of Leto’s face, as he shifts from relaxed to concern, is beautifully done. At this point, the audience becomes aware that this character is beginning to realise that his world is cracking apart. Ellen Burstyn is a triumph – her outwardly jaunty persona is crumbling, yet she cannot admit even to her own son what the problem is. Lies twist and feed on each other. 

The cinematography reflects this. Aronofsky uses spinning camera angles,conveying a feeling of dislocation. Split screens are used to ensure that stories are compared. And there is also the soundtrack – Clint Mansell’s pulse pounding electronica conveys a feeling or urgency, a sense of panic. And it all comes to a terrifying conclusion. 

Dark, disturbing, and haunting, Requiem for a Dream is both impossibly sad, and sadly possible. Watch it.