Reader’s Request Week: Requiem for a Dream (2000)
ANYBODY WANNA WASTE SOME TIME?
by Danielle Lee
Those bludgeoning violins. Ellen Burstyn’s terrorizing fridge. Jared Leto’s arm. Three chanted words at a graphic sex show.
Everyone has that scene they’ll cringe and remind you of when you tell them you masochistically chose to watch Requiem for a Dream a third time for the purpose of analysis. Or in my mom’s case, one exasperated word: “Danielle!!”
To be fair, she was the one I called crying after that ill-advised second viewing a few years back, in the throes of a year-plus unemployment depression, thinking Darren Aronofsky’s stylish portrait of spiraling junkies would somehow assuage my own privileged distress over my rapidly progressing long-distance relationship with the recorded voices at the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Requiem for a Dream doesn’t offer the detached viewing option that other similarly well-made movies in that implicit “only-watch-once” genre do, in their moments of sheer fantastical over-the-top-ness. (See: Oldboy’s incredible hallway slaughter.) No, Aronofsky creates such a visceral, sensory viewer experience with his adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel that, although veering on clunky at times, it never really leaves your bloodstream.
The aforementioned “Lux Aeterna” song, operating as a surrogate heartbeat for the film, thuds in escalating concert with the characters as their situations become increasingly grotesque—tactile close-ups in split screens; feverishly fast-cut, Foleyed sequences of the characters getting high. Actor-mounted cameras that quickly switch between subjective POV shots and their 180 degree opposite close-ups, capturing those characters’ (often tragic) reactions to the brutal scenes they’ve found themselves in.
All of these unique stylistic choices ensure the characters’ narratives enter your veins and practically indict you in their respective downfalls.
The film circles around protagonist Harry (Jared Leto), the Brighton Beach native with drug empire dreams that soon become disastrous as his heroin addiction advances. Joining him are his girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), whose own fashion-designer aspirations are similarly destroyed through codependency and addiction; his aging and widowed mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), whose loneliness fosters a delusional, television-aided obsession with public admiration that’s only intensified by diet-pill psychosis; and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), partner in both the heroin business and self-administration.
Their interlocking relationship dependencies and the pits of despair they individually spiral down are often rendered visually, with spherical aerial camera movement and shots like the one of Harry and Marion sitting inside a ring of her design sketches and Sara enclosed by a hallucinated conga line, starring a glamorous and adored version of herself. Their dreams of creative success and individual glory offer glimpses of circular eternity, yet only taunt them with surreal suffocation as the drugs put them further out of reach.
Marion wears a choker necklace when grudgingly asking a sexually interested acquaintance for money to fund Harry’s heroin distribution plans. Later, having sex with him to earn the cash, the choker has been replaced by his hands encircling her neck.
The four characters’ narratives continue paralleling each other throughout—at times explicitly enough to underscore Aronofsky’s surrealist vision.
The airtight ordering of scenes likens Sara’s doctor’s brisk, impersonal rip of the prescription pad to Harry and Tyrone’s Coney Island drug transactions. It suggests Harry and Sara’s hallucinations—hers of food, his of soundlessly running toward Marion on a pier only to fall into a void—begin at the same time, and that sugar, television, caffeine, amphetamines, coke and heroin (especially mixed in a cocktail of personal failure) can all levy similar doses of psychological damage.
Because where does staunch realism factor into the warm comfort that floods out of a tequila shot, the pleasant synaptic Rockettes chorus line in a cup of coffee, or the gratifying shoulder landslide in a smoky college dorm?
If we as viewers are complicit in Harry, Sara, Marion and Tyrone’s actions via subjective POVs and vulnerable edits, we are also dizzied and sedated and thrilled and exhausted. Even when approaching levels of fried-egg PSA subtlety, the tightly woven construction of the film forgives these small indulgences for the sake of clear messages.
And beyond that obvious drugs are bad m’kay one are some corollaries. The film’s constant, escalating tension also feeds into conflicts between private vs. public, internal vs. external, dream vs. reality.
The first of these conflicts is visualized in one of the film’s opening scenes—a split screen as Harry enters his mother’s house to steal the TV he continually pawns for drug money while she cowers in her room. In one panel, we see her perspective through the keyhole and in the other, her hiding behind the door. Much later, her previously sad but quiet shut-in existence now unraveled by amphetamines, a broken family and a fixation on warped infomercials, Sara rides the subway to claim her right to TV stardom based on some junk-mail promise. Suddenly, we’re seeing this woman, whose slow descent into madness we had sympathetically witnessed, through the eyes of strangers, who laugh at and dismiss her, with her frizzed hair, mad repetitions of “I’m going to be on the TV!” and wild eyes, as the prototypical Crazy Subway Lady.
The moment when Marion takes one simple action that irrevocably catapults her into the abyss of miserable addiction elicits a similar response from an outsider. During a terrible fight with Harry, he writes down the number of a heroin-holding guy that’s willing to “share” exclusively with women, for non-monetary prices. With Harry gone and withdrawal imminent, Marion reluctantly calls the creep, who answers her desperate “Hi” with a terrible cackle.
For brief moments, we have to reevaluate our commiseration with these characters, for whom we can effortlessly cry thanks to sweeping moments of excellent cinematography, but at whom we might snicker in the subway or—as becomes Marion’s fate after that phone call—judge from a safe distance for headlining some humiliating sex party.
In keeping with the film’s visceral tone, this internal-external dichotomy is also explored on a more micro level. After so many scenes of ingesting and shooting into veins, Marion twice cues the maddening “Lux Aeterna” crescendo by expelling something. First, vomit from her mouth after her first degrading encounter with the man on the phone. Later, her screams, visualized in the underwater bubbles of her bathtub.
The scenes of her carefully applying (darker and darker) makeup show the disconnect she’s trying to achieve (one that the drugs help her facilitate) between a benign beauty routine and the horror to which she’s about to subject herself. Yes, the water silences her rage. But it also threatens to drown her entirely, given just a few more moments of catharsis.
Marion and Harry are constantly on that precipice—shooting up or “pushing off”—fighting to suspend their aching reality at the risk of just one moment too long underwater.
Down there, the two have lost their grip on each other, washing away the earlier love story captured in giddy embraces on the beach, mutual assurances (“you are my dream”), and the joint purchase of Marion’s fashion outpost. These high points have devolved into oppressive, minimally lit scenes of isolation and shouting matches that end in one specifically heartbreaking exhale of “fuck you.”
In one early split-screened scene, the two lie in bed as we voyeuristically watch them touch each other in an aerial wide shot alongside close-ups of the fondled body parts. Employed here to celebrate points of human connection, the split screen later welds together bonds between human and anthropomorphized drug. With no son to eye, even through a keyhole, Sara now faces off against her diet-advised grapefruits, her medley of pills and a fridge that comes to monstrous life. Harry and Marion’s split screens in bed make way for, first, split screens of their mutual shoot-up routines—and then to split screens entirely absent of one another. In one full screen shot at the very end of the film, after Marion has sacrificed her body and creative ambitions to the mercy of drugs, she spoons her rewarded bag of heroin in an aerial re-creation of the couple’s earlier cuddling on that couch.
Tyrone shares a split screen with a childhood memory, in one of many moments when dreams stifle, rather than expand, the characters’ psyches. Harry and Sara’s hallucinations both begin with aspirations of love—Harry’s in the form of Marion and Sara’s projected from her TV. The dreams quickly become dangerous, though, morphing into oppositional nightmares, with Harry plunging to a near-death and Sara’s audience ruthlessly taunting her. These visions of the future are just as toxic as Tyrone’s fixation on the past, and, unable to move forward or back, the characters can only get high, chemically extending their synthetically feel-good present. With each desperate elevation the crash only becomes harder, back down to a reality grown vicious with neglect.
Later, while Harry and Tyrone attempt to escape their respective nightmares—and the law—with a drive to Florida, Tyrone cheerfully announces that they’re now 600 miles closer to Miami. When Harry reminds him of the geographical flip-side—600 miles farther from New York—Tyrone glances in his side rearview, face collapsing with overwhelming anguish. Aronofsky largely truncates the reasons for Tyrone’s despondency, but these kinds of scarring transformations and breaks with the past occur over the span of the film for the other characters.
Scenes of the characters’ mindful walks—or in Sara’s case, roll on a gurney—down hallways toward horrible fates visually indicate these life-altering moments. As do the close-up expressions on their faces, poignantly executed by the actors.
Ellen Burstyn’s entire performance is particularly incredible. In the cases of Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto’s astonishing portrayals, their casting is also aesthetically superb.
As the dilating pupils in Aronofsky’s getting-high sequences demonstrate, eyes are often the most terrifying, immediately apparent barometer of an addict. I am still haunted by the disturbing lifelessness I’ve witnessed in the eyes of addicts I’ve loved. Connelly and Leto have the suitable light-hued, expressive canvases for that brutal hallmark.
Back on the other side of this codependent-simulating relationship between characters and viewers, our eyes are just as continually assaulted. Along with our ears, consciences, hearts, minds and stomachs.
As all the characters become fully submerged, we go down with them. And gasp with relief at the end credits, though it’s possible we’ve already been under way too long.
If you are one of likely dozens (!) of people in the world who can’t get enough of Darren Aronofsky’s nightmare-inducing visualizations of addiction, Danielle Lee recommends you check out his recent anti-meth PSAs, and then go about jamming safety pins into your eyelids or whatever else it is that gets you going.