Note: This review will contain moderate spoilers for Requiem for a Dream.
What makes a movie disturbing? Is it the shocking images presented to us on our screen, or is it how the director uses far more subtle techniques to get under our skin? Is it the deconstruction of the characters piece by piece, or is it smashing them altogether? Regardless, films designed to disturb, distress and depress have never been commonplace in mainstream cinema. Most are either niche horror flicks or independent productions by more 'artsy' directors, and as such never garner box office success, but they are known to gather success in the world of critics. Today we are going to look at one such film, so let us now step into the world of..
Requiem for a Dream is a 2000 film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, and is based on the 1978 novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr. It stars Jared Leto as Harry, Jennifer Connelly as his girlfriend Marion and Marlon Wayans as his best friend Tyrone. They are all heroin addicts living in New York, who enter the drug trade themselves in an attempt to realise their dreams. Ellen Burstyn plays Harry's mother Sara, who lives by herself, wasting her life away watching daytime infomercials and fantasizing about appearing in a particular game show.
Requiem for a Dream is certainly a character driven movie. The entire film revolves around the deconstruction of it's four leads, which is an incredibly depressing feat as, when the film opens, the characters are pretty screwed. Harry , to get money to pay for heroin, often takes his mother's old television set and sells it to a local pawn store. His mother, desperate to have it returned as television is her only real friend, always goes and pays to get it back. This is a seemingly endless ritual, until Harry and Tyrone make the decision to enter the drug trade and build a life for themselves and Marion. The money they make does not last however, as Tyrone is caught up in a gang war and Jack uses the money they've made to bail him out. With neither money nor drugs to be gathered from the gang violence, all three characters spiral downwards.
A similar situation occurs with Sara. She receives a call telling her she has won a place on the game show she frequently watches, and resorts to diet pills to fit into a red dress she wore at Jack's graduation, the happiest moment of her life. The diet pills and red dress form into an obsession for her, eventually resulting in grotesque, frightening hallucinations and Sara completely losing her grip on sanity.
The plot threads I have mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg for the mental and physical devastation Aronofsky puts his characters through. The film has no qualms with showing the true horror and abuse of drugs, using the well-developed characters to hammer each point home, and building up to a terrifying but brilliant climax, which is the films primary focus. Everything that happens in Requiem for a Dream is part of the escalation towards the final scenes of the film, which show the characters in their full, destroyed forms, torn apart by drugs and the false world they created for themselves. It is an incredibly bleak film, with Aronofsky not holding back on any disturbing imagery.
The film is relentless in how it deconstructs its characters, with each moment building towards a shatteringly powerful climax.
Aronofsky would not have been able to compile such a film without great actors to present his characters and the horror emerging around them. Luckily, the four leads all give it all and really contribute to the film. Without good acting, the film would fall completely flat, but thanks to the subtlety ingrained in each performance, the characters come off as believable, and sympathetic human beings. I feel Leto's performance is one most deserving off praise, as the character of Harry could easily come off as arrogant and unsympathetic, but Leto plays him with the exact right amount of pathos and blasé humility to allow the audience to connect with him.
That isn't to say the other performances are lesser. Wayans is acting far outside his comfort zone, and pulls it off magnificently, while Burstyn is completely believable in her role, even when her hallucinations start to turn truly haunting and weird. The only weak link in the chain is Connelly, but I am unsure of whether to blame this on her performance or the character in general. She comes off as very selfish and unlikeable, especially towards the end of the film, in which it is implied she disregards Jack and chooses heroine. As I said, I am unsure whether this was the films intention or whether it was simply Connelly's performance, but when Harry's final line is spoken near the end of the film, I disliked her supremely as a character. Speaking of that line, it is perhaps one of the most haunting in film history, at least in my mind.
The film doesn't just rely on it's actors and writing however. Aronofsky proves himself as an adept film-maker on a technical level, with clever cinematography and some fantastic editing. I rarely praise the editing in a film, but I will just say the inter-cutting towards the end of the film is probably some of the most fantastic film trickery I have ever seen. The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is fairly sparse, but the main theme is something everyone will recognise. Don't believe me? Then go and listen to it.
The performances, with Leto's in particular, are great and really make the film believable.
Requiem for a Dream is going to be a very polarizing movie. There is no light relief as there is in films like Trainspotting. Instead, it makes the choice to be a powerful and distressing movie that offers no relief to those who decide to watch it. Whether or not this is your thing really depends on the kind of person you are. If you want a fun film, why are you still reading this review? But for those of you who are willing to dip into the haunting and frequently disturbing world of Requiem for a Dream.
I can not guarantee you will enjoy it, or even like it. What I can guarantee, is that you will always remember it. Perhaps this is not a good thing, but Requiem for a Dream commands respect for being one of the most punishing, absorbing and haunting movies ever made.