Requiem for a Dream (2000)

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Director: Darren Aronofsky

Producers: Eric Watson, Palmer West (Artisan, Bandeira, Protozoa,
Sibling, Industry, Thousand Words, Truth & Soul)

Writers: Hubert Selby Jr. (novel, screenplay), Darren Aronofsky (screenplay)

Photography: Matthew Libatique

Music: Clint Mansell

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, Louise Lasser, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Janet Sarno, Suzanne Shepherd, Keith David, Joanne Gordon, Charlotte Aronofsky, Mark Margolis, Michael Kaycheck

In that new crop of promising young filmmakers, from Christopher Nolan to David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson to Wes Anderson, there’s a special spot reserved for Darren Aronofsky. He broke onto the scene with his theological sci-fi thriller Pi (1998), baffled critics with his overly-ambitious The Fountain (2006), resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008) and, if you ask me, should have been awarded the Best Director Oscar for the harrowing Black Swan (2011). But no matter what else Aronofsky does from here, it’s going to be pretty hard to top Requiem for a Dream, a film so intense it hits you like a mack truck, wrecks you for days and makes you want to go curl up in the fetal position like so many of its tragic characters.

Based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem wears its theme on its sleeve, suggesting in its very title the pursuit of an impossible American Dream. It follows four drug addicts in Coney Island, Brooklyn — Henry Goldfarb (Janet Leto), his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans), and his lonely widowed mother Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn). For Henry, Marion and Tyrone, the American Dream is not far from Tony Montana, using the heroine drug trade as their pursuit of happiness. For Henry, the dream is to open a fashion store for Marion’s designs. For Tyrone, it’s earning enough money to leave the streets and make his mother proud. Meantime, Henry’s mother follows a different American Dream — that of fame and a thin waistline, all because it makes her popular among her elderly women friends, staves off her loneliness and provides her “a reason to get up in the morning.” Her nightmare begins with a phone call inviting her to attend a live TV show taping. Instantly, she becomes obsessed with fitting into the old red dress she wore to Harry’s graduation, leading to a diet pill addiction so serious it strings her out all the way to an insane asylum.

Burstyn’s performance in the role is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and that’s no hyperbole. Her halllucinations rival all the horror of The Exorcist (1973), her wild-eyed desire for fame recalls Swanson’s Norma Desmond, and her resistence to a feeding tube brings back the most disturbing memories of The Titticut Follies. It’s easy to see why Burstyn was so horrified that she originally rejected the role. It took watching a video of Pi, and seeing Aronofsky’s potential, before she agreed to do it (A). From that point on, her commitment to the part was awesome. She spent four hours every morning being fitted with prosthetics, wearing four different necks, two different fat suits and nine different wigs. (A)

The result was well worth it. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Burstyn said Sara Goldfarb was her single greatest acting achievement. Everyone knows she deserved an Oscar that year, but sadly lost to Julie Roberts, who in turn gave her best performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), a film I greatly admire. Still, there’s no denying it was a classic example of Oscar politics, awarding Roberts because she hadn’t won before, and snubbing Burstyn because she had, decades earlier in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). It was the old spread the wealth argument.

As for the rest of the cast, you’ve surely seen before — Leto in Fight Club (1999) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Connelly an Oscar-winner in A Beautiful Mind (2001), Wayans in Scary Movie (2000), Christopher McDonald in Happy Gilmore (1996) — but Requiem may be each’s best work. Leto and Connelly are so utterly tragic, victims of eachother, but more so of themselves. Wayans, who replaced original choice Dave Chapelle, shows range as both humorous and powerful. And McDonald, as infomercial host Tappy Tibbons, is surprisingly effective in a role that required much improvisation, considering all his scenes were shot in one day. When done, the SAG extras for the audience and crew gave him a standing ovation. (A)

One’s got to believe the great performances are at least partially thanks to Aronofsky, who gets the very best out of his actors. Word has it that Arnofsky asked Leto and Wayans to avoid sex and sugar for 30 straight days so they could relate to the idea of irresistable cravings. Sometimes, it’s not what a director does during the performance, but after. For instance, during Burstyn’s monologue on her deep loneliness, cinematographer Matthew Libatique accidentally let the camera drift and Aronofsky called “cut.” When he asked Libatique why he’d been sloppy, he learned it was because he had been crying during the take and fogged up the camera’s eyepiece. The smart director he is, Aronofsky used that take in the final print. (A)

Not that a drifting camera matters much here. Aronofsky’s camera is anywhere and everywhere in this one. Most memorably, he mounts a special camera (the Snorricam) to the front of his actors, filming their horrified faces as they move. The images remain in my head — Tyron running horrified with blood all over his face; Sara as she creeps around her flickering apartment in paranoia; and Marion as she staggers out of an act of prostitution and vomits, as if right onto the cameraman. In another technique, when Harry falls in a nightmare, Aronofsky ties a camera to the end of a bungee cord and drops it to the ground, stopping within inches of the ground. (A) Both these set-ups, the bungee and the Snorricam, serve to subjectivize the film experience for viewers. Aronofsky make us identify with the characters, often seeing what they see, feeling what they feel., and it rocks you.

The use of subjective camera hallucinations recalls Danny Boyle’s drug masterpiece Trainspotting (1996), while the atmosphere recalls the many Brooklyn settings of Spike Lee. (B) There’s also a bit of Ghostbusters (1984) in a refrigerator that comes to life. There’s a bit of The Lost Weekend (1945) in the apartment hallucinations, only substituting cup cakes for bats. And the supermarket delivery scene clearly homages The Godfather (1972), using oranges to signifying the characters’ doom. Most significantly, Aronofsky actually bought the remake rights to the Japanese animated thriller Perfect Blue (1998), in order to replicate an image he loved so much — the overhead shot of a person in a bathtub, followed by an underwater shot of them screaming (A). But rather than a punk merely ripping off others, Aronofsky has the vision to take what’s come before and push it to the next level.

Throughout the film, he unleashes a whole slew of bold stylstic techniques, trying everything he can possibly think of. Rapid succession of close-ups in montage, making familiar image out of lighters, bubbles, syringe plungers and dilating pupils. Split-screens, both vertical, like Harry and Sara on opposite sides of the same door, and horizontal, like Sara inspecting her diet pills. (C) Long tracking shots, like Harry and Tyrone strolling through a grocery store. (D) Time-lapse photography, like Marion restless in bed, or Sara endlessly vacumming. Surveillance camera shots, like Harry and Marion in an elevator. Trick cuts to create the illusion of Sara’s breakfast appearing before our eyes. Distorted images, as if looking through water, as if lookng through a convex peephole. A vibrating frame, as if someone is shaking the camera. High-angle shots, spinning round and round above his subjects. Drop-down intertitles, pushing down the screen image with the time of season. Altered speeds, the audio slowing and quickening with the video, like the scene with Sara in the doctor’s office. Multiple exposures of Sara dancing in her bedroom, appearing as if there are three of her, or of Sara walking down the street, as if she’s the only in slow-motion while the rest of the people are in hyper-speed. Digitzed characters escaping the TV and appearing in the real world. Even an opening credit sequence that plays like an informercial, accurately proclaiming, “We got a winner” next to “A Film By Darren Aronofsky.”

At times, several of these things all happen at once, creating a whirlwind of an experience and a feeling that we are indeed tripping right with the characters. The film truly is a marvel of modern editing and an inspiration to wannabe film splicers, though editor Jay Rabinowitz was snubbed of even a nomination by the Academy. The juxtaposition of images is brilliant, even when disturbing, like the shot of Tyrone jamming a stick into a bucket, followed by the head jolts of the “ass on ass” scene. Even beyond juxtaposition, Aronofsky completely understands the idea of editing as narrative propulsion. While an average 100-minute film has between 600 and 700 cuts, Requiem features more than 2,000. (A) Aronofsky uses these cuts to put on a clinic in pacing. Note how the average scene length shortens as the movie progresses, starting anywhere from 90 seconds to two minutes, then increasing to rapid fire during the film’s climactic finale.

In accenting that pace, the film has no greater asset than its rapturous score. Composed by Clint Mansell and performed by the Kronos Quartet, the piece offers slower, uneasy strings that elevate into staccato strokes so sharp they sound as if they’re sawing right through the violins. The score was so powerful that it’s been used to promote countless works since. You may remember it from movie trailers like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Da Vinci Code (2006), 300 (2006) and I Am Legend (2007), TV spots for 24 (2001) and Lost (2004), as a sample for rap tracks, or as the intimidating entrance theme for the 2007-08 NBA Champion Boston Celtics. Between the elevating music and elevating pace, Requiem culminates with an intensity close to unrivaled in movie history.

It’s this firestorm of madness and melancholy, shock and sadness, that wins over fans. It’s hard to tell how many have seen it, seeing as it only made $3 million at the box office as both an NC-17 and unrated release. But the money doesn’t matter. Those who see it never forget it. Enthusiasts have rated the film an 8.5 on IMDB, good for #68 on the all-time list. For others, it may remain too intense to watch. But in my book, the more people that watch this one the better. Forget D.AR.E. and the War on Drugs. All teachers must do to discourage students from drug use is screen Requiem for a Dream. But fat chance of it ever being shown in school. This one’s for mature audiences, particularly those who know of people or identify themselves as users. For everything that Requiem offers, its most important place may be that of cinematic intervention.

Citations: 

CITE A: IMDB Trivia
CITE B: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE C: Dancyger, Ken (2002). The Technique of Film and Video Editing. London: Focal. pp. 257-258. ISBN 0240804201.
CITE D: Powell, Anna (2007). Deleuze, Altered States and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 75. ISBN 0748632824.

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