Requiem for a Dream starts
with Harry taking his mother's television set while she hides in the
closet. The screen is split, so we see
her muttering to herself while he shouts at her complaining that she makes him
feel guilty. Both are immediately
unsympathetic characters, and the split screen enhances the sense of
alienation. Set in Coney Island, where
director Darren Aronofsky grew up, we see that these are people who want to
escape from reality. Harry and his
friend Tyrone shoot up as soon as they get the money from the Pawn Shop. They have a scheme to make money by selling
drugs, although they find it difficult to control their own drug use. Meanwhile, Harry's mother, Sarah Goldfarb,
sits in her apartment watching TV. She
gets a phone call telling her she will be on TV, and she is thrilled. She wants to be able to fit into her best
red dress, so she starts to diet. When
restricting her food to hard-boiled eggs, grapefruit and coffee doesn't work,
she gets some diet pills. Soon both
Sarah and Harry are out of control with their drug taking. Harry has a girlfriend Marion, and they have
fun together, but in their most intimate love scene, they are also shown in
split screen, as if even when making love, they are isolated. When Harry's money-making scheme does not
work out and they need more drugs to just to feel normal, everything goes
wrong. By the end of the film, each
character is ruined.
The film is characterized by plenty
of visual techniques. When the young
people take drugs, we see a fast montage of the drugs in preparation, with
sounds effects. When people are on drugs,
often the scene is speeded up. When
Sarah is dieting, she sees food everywhere, even through the fridge. The thematic music is played by the Kronos
Quartet, often signaling disaster. At
other points, electronic music gives a strong sense of tension and undermines
any possible rapport between characters.
Although there are occasional moments of humor, the performances are
strong, and Jared Leto, Jennifer Connely and Marlon Wayans are all good looking
actors, Requiem for a Dream is a hard movie to watch.
In his director's commentary,
Aronofsky explains that he wanted the work to be entirely subjective, getting
into the heads of the characters. Their
addictions take hold of them and make their lives horrific, and he captures
this well. But unlike Michael Figgis'
work in Leaving Las Vegas, for example, it is hard to identify with the
characters. It seems as if getting
closer to their subjective states, in Aronofsky's work, results not in bringing
the viewer to like the character, but rather to feel disgust. Maybe, as in Louis Sass' analysis of
schizophrenia in his important book Madness and Modernism, Aronovksy
sees his characters as utterly alienated from themselves.
Requiem for a Dream is based
on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr., who also wrote Last Exit
to Brooklyn. One of the DVD extras
is an interview of Selby by Ellyn Burstyn, and he explains how he came to
become a writer and how he came to write such dark pieces. He says he knows more about the darkness
than the light, and he can relate to the suffering of people. He wanted to get deep into people's
pathology, but importantly, he also remarks that people feel compassion
for his characters in his books. This
is exactly what Aronofsky does not do.
Everything about this film works against us caring for these people: we
can see their suffering and we can be horrified by their actions, but we are
not led to care for them.
There is a fascinating section in
Aronofsky's commentary where he tries to distinguish his approach from that of
the "Dogma" school associated with Lars Von Trier, at least in his
early films. That approach rejects all
artificiality and the polish of Hollywood films, and tries to convey reality
through capturing truth spontaneously.
By way of contrast, in trying to get closer to subjective experience,
Aronofsky embraces artificial visual techniques with famous actors, showing
characters fantasies and paranoid dreams.
Of course, both in his early film Pi and this one, he addresses
subjects and uses techniques that Hollywood does not want to touch, so both he
and Von Trier have to work independently of the major film companies. Both filmmakers manage to create profoundly
depressing works, despite their different philosophies.
When I first saw Requiem for a
Dream a few years ago, I loathed it.
It was more gripping that the deeply pretentious Pi, but it was
still unpleasant to watch, and more than that, it made me hate the
characters. Watching it again on the
full DVD, seeing the deleted scenes, watching the actors preparing for their
roles, and hearing Aronofsky talk about his creative process makes it more
interesting. There's no doubt that he
is innovative and creative in his approach, and this film demands the viewer's
attention. As a portrayal of addiction,
it is remarkable and can be counted among the most important cultural representations
of addicts in recent years. After
watching it a few times, the film's power to induce discomfort and alienation
is reduced, but it is still not an experience I want to go through again any
© 2005 Christian Perring. All
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.