Retro Review – Requiem for a Dream

Addiction is a theme often explored in cinema. Sinatra rolled up his sleeve for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955, a courageous move for both filmmaker and actor to cook up (pun intended, sorry) such a movie, taken of course from the brave and beautiful book of the same name by Nelson Algren. Algren’s poetic prose was unflinching in its depiction of degenerates, drunkards and dope heads as he waded valiantly through the scummy waters of drug use and addiction. In 1978 However Hubert Selby immersed himself completely and slipped right under. Requiem for a Dream was born, a novel which took America, the land of dreams and twisted it into something dark and unseemly. It took over 20 years for somebody to take up the reigns and project this living nightmare onto the silver screen. That man was the young visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.

Requiem for a Dream is a graphic depiction of unrealised wishes and aspirations. Essentially a funeral soundtrack to the death of hope. From these words it may seem a purely morbid piece of work but what Aronofsky does so well is to build these dreams up and make them real before he destroys them. The film is divided into three main segments. The characters fragile desires are nurtured and grow throughout the bright airy spring before turning brown and brittle in autumn, eventually shattering completely in a bitter cold winter of discontent.

Spring is when we get to know the characters. The widowed Sara Goldfarb spends her days in her Coney Island block dreaming of days gone by. Her degenerate son Harry lives a day to day existence of drugs and parties, funded through pawning his mother’s material goods. His girlfriend Marion and best friend Tyrone are his partners in crime. What they all share are dreams of escape to a better life. Harry and Tyrone’s moral compasses point downwards, their dream is the big life as dope peddlers. Marion sees her future as a fashion designer with her own shop. Sara’s wish is to be on television, this desire driven by an audition letter from a TV company for game show contestants. This is a communication probably sent to thousands but Sara feels that she has been picked from above. Her challenge is to fit into her red dress for this imagined appearance, the dress a signifier of happier times, a husband and Harry’s graduation. These dreams are dangerous for all our protagonists. Through deluded obsession they fly closer and closer to the sun and it doesn’t take long for the wax to melt and send them plummeting.

Jared Leto should really get that seen to

What fuels these ambitions are drugs. Heroin for Harry and crew, diet pills for Sara. This raises a very interesting chicken and egg question. Do the drugs cause the origins of delusion or are they used purely to maintain the belief? I’ve always felt the film is more about obsession than drugs. The characters narcotic tendencies are closely linked to their addictive personalities but it is their dreams which lead them onto the hazardous paths they take. Like a blackjack player at the end of the night our characters gamble their final chips on the final spin with a fantasist’s belief that it’s coming in. Drugs here are effect rather than cause. To depict their drug use Aronofsky uses both style and substance. Just as with his debut Pi he shows here that he understands the technical side of cinema and is willing to experiment. In Requiem for a Dream the gruesome and frightening realities of drugs are clearly laid out for all to see but special effects are also pulled out of the bag to realise feelings of paranoia and euphoria. A particularly effective segment shows Sara at a doctor’s office with her surroundings in slow motion and the sound muted, the come-down from her speed infused diet pills. The team behind this film are a creative bunch and use something they named hip-hop cuts to show the taking of heroin or Sara’s daily pill routine. These consist of a mini montage of image and sound to represent the activity such as a flame, a syringe and a dilating pupil. It’s an effective method of showing the extent of usage without the desensitising effect of constantly shoving it in our faces. Aronofsky doesn’t wish to stylise or trivialise drug use however so when necessary he plays an ace card and leaves us reeling at the degrading levels these users are dragged down to.


The cast is an eclectic mix. Jared Leto the fresh faced pretty boy is just the fresh canvas needed to show the physically ravaging nature of drugs. Jennifer Connelly has a shattering story arc which bears witness to just how far people go to feed that monkey on their back. Marlon Wayans shows that his career path into farcical comedies was unnecessary as on this evidence he can be a fine actor. Finally we have Ellen Burstyn as Sara; it’s silly to say she’s a revelation as a great performance is more than expected from this lady. However she surpasses herself and shows a truly disturbing and horrifying fall from grace for a vulnerable dreamer. Her speed fuelled tooth grinding widow cannot fail to affect the most hardened viewer.

In some ways it’s surprising that this famous novel sat on the shelf for so long before being filmed. We are lucky it did though because by fate it fell to a man with enough fearless creativity to tackle its themes head on. Aronofsky remains faithful to the mood of the book but is happy to put his own spin on the style, as all good directors should. What we are left with is an enthralling but horrendous journey from heaven to hell. A voyeurism of others misery which should caution as much as it horrifies. The film truly is a requiem to shattered hopes. Are Algren and Aronofsky telling us it is wrong to dream? I don’t think they are. They are warning us against manic obsession. Oh, and they might be saying the heroin doesn’t help either.

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