"Anybody wanna waste some time?"
Drugs are bad. Like, they are really really bad. Hard drugs are some of the most frightening things on the planet. With Trainspotting, there was a debate over whether or not the movie was pro-heroin. In Darren Aronofsky's second most famous film (behind Black Swan) there is no debate whatsoever. Requiem for a Dream says that drugs are bad. It uses horrifying imagery and well thought-out scare tactics to prove a point that few movies prove with any success.
The movie is primarily centered on three characters: Harry, Marion and Tyrone. Harry and Marion are a couple who seem to be madly in love with each other. Tyrone is their friend and business partner. They are three young adults living in a drug-infused utopia. They mainly do the big no-no of hard drugs, heroin. They will do anything to get more of it. In fact, the movie begins with Harry (Jared Leto) stealing and selling his mother's television to a pawn shop in order to afford more drugs.
This might not be such a bad thing considering his mother is practically addicted to daytime television infomercials. The ads star the charismatic, but mysteriously, creepy Tappy Tibbons. Played by the always solid Christopher McDonald, Tibbons is a strange addition to the Requiem stew. His infomercials are almost as campy as his name, but consumerism does not seem to be what he is on screen to represent. I think he might be a representation of obsession. The more you watch him and his crew on the snowy television screen the more you become enamored by the parasocial relationship that he is able to form with Harry’s mother. He does not add a considerable amount of plot to the movie, but his character IS what the movie is all about.
Harry’s mother, Sara, is the character that really steals the show in Requiem. She is played hauntingly by one of my all-time favorite actresses, Ellen Burstyn. She is a lowly old widow who has, like mentioned, become obsessed with watching infomercials. As her obsession with television grows, we see Harry become concerned for her well being. Though the small family may have their problems, it is apparent throughout the movie that they do deeply care for each other. It is never said that Sara knows about her son’s drug using, but I am not sure that it would be possible for her to not realize something is going on. Either way, she sticks with him through his troubled times, but eventually she hits her own…
Sara receives a call that tells her she has been chosen to be featured on a televised game show. Already knowing about her obsession with television, the audience can sense her excitement upon hearing the news. After stumbling across a picture of her at her son’s graduation, Sara realizes that she is not in the same physical shape that she was in during her more youthful years. She digs up an old red dress (one of her dead-husband's favorites) and does whatever it takes to fit her body back into it. With disapproval from her hypocritical son, Sara begins a strict regimen of weight-loss amphetamine pills for every meal. It leads to the question of “what actually is a drug?” These were prescribed by a doctor. That means they cannot be unsafe.
All of this is happening while Harry, Tyrone and Marion are working in the Coney Island drug trade. They all have their own reasons for selling drugs and each reason is something much bigger than good feelings. Harry wants to be able to provide for his mother. Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is trying to open up a fashion store in order to sell her designs. Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is simply trying to reverse the curse of his family by escaping the dangerous streets of New York and making something of himself. Sadly, Tyrone is caught in the middle of some kind of drug skirmish and the trio has to spend most of their money on posting bail. They now have to start over from the beginning.
Taking a break from the story, Aronofsky’s direction in Requiem for a Dream could not be any better. He is able to introduce an extremely unique style of filmmaking while still getting the best out of his entire cast. Maybe everybody was on board with the anti-drug message of the film. Maybe the cast knew that they had a fantastic screenplay on their hands. Either way, you could not ask for a more emotion-driven piece of cinema. Every frame is put together with amazing incoherent precision. It is the visual definition of organized chaos.
Jared Leto as Harry is a great example of perfect casting. He is brooding, but pathetically desperate throughout the movie. He may be relatable enough to cheer for him, but the audience never really likes him. His arm has become deeply and grossly infected from his unclean heroin habits, but he still insists on sticking the needle in the same spot. He is addicted in the worst way. This is not the heroin addiction depicted in Trainspotting. The audience does not laugh at this type of thing. Rather, the need to reach out and protect or help the poor addict is felt in their hearts. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes from the movie, Harry convinces Marion to have sex with her psychiatrist for money. She loves him so much that she cannot help but agree. This agreement was not for drugs, but for unadulterated love. It is a terrifying thought that one person could love another person that much.
When Harry and Tyrone leave to find more successful drug trafficking in Florida, Marion is left in Coney Island to fend for herself. She is forced into working for a pimp who forces her to have sex with him and displays her in degrading and humiliating sex-shows to support her drug habit. The culminating scene in the movie features a massive amount of perverted men throwing money at a crying, scarred Marion as she commits vulgar acts to herself and another stripper. She will never recover from this experience. And she did it all for drugs, love and money.
Harry’s arm eventually becomes so infected that he and Tyrone are forced to stop at a hospital on the way to Florida. They are put in jail for skipping out on their bail. Tyrone is forced to do hard labor in an extremely racist southern prison while Harry has his arm amputated due to the infection.
Meanwhile, Sara never again hears from the television studio and begins to believe she is too fat to be on television. She becomes addicted to amphetamines and begins to suffer from serious hallucinations and delusions. In one of the most interestingly acted scenes, Sara believes that her refrigerator has become a horrible monster that is trying to attack her. She eventually marches down to the television studio where the police are informed of her addiction and dementia. She, wearing her red dress, is then committed to the psychiatric ward where she is forced to endure unsuccessful electroshock treatment.
Dreams play a major role in creating emotion in Requiem. Harry dreams on many occasions that he and Marion are engaged and living a successful life in Manhattan. After his final dream, he awakens to find himself alone and in prison – with only one arm. Tyrone dreams that his mother will be proud of him. Sadly, he is beaten by racist prison guards. Marion wants Harry to save her from her life. She dreams that she is waiting on a pier by the ocean when Harry appears, clean from drugs, to take her away from everything. Sara’s dream is the most emotional. She dreams that she finally made it to television, and that she is there, in her red dress, with her son and his wife. They hug and say that they love each other. The movie ends with these dreams being slashed as each character balls up into the fetal position and cries. This is the life that drugs have created for them.
I understand that I have given away the ending, but Requiem for a Dream is not a movie that is concerned with the plot. Aronofsky is much more concerned with leaving an impression on the audience. He does this successfully by actively driving a forceful message. Drugs are not a game. They are not a joke. They ruin lives.
I have heard people say that the unrated movie should be shown in health classes in middle schools. I personally disagree with that statement. This is not a movie or message that is appropriate for children. Show it in high school – it will work just as well.
Requiem for a Dream: B+