WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: Harry Goldfarb is a heroin addict prepared to pawn his mother Sara’s television for a hit, but he has a dream: if he and friend Tyrone can make enough money dealing drugs, he can set himself and girlfriend Marion up for life. Initially, all goes well, but a disruption to the supply of heroin has terrible consequences; Sara, meanwhile, faces her own battles as she diets in preparation for an as-yet-unscheduled TV appearance.
Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lives a pretty sad life in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, regularly buying back the TV her junkie son Harry (Jared Leto) regularly steals in order to watch aspirational infomercials whilst overeating. However, a chance phone call informing Sara that she’s been “pre-selected” to appear on a show causes a stir amongst her friends and gets Sara in a fret over whether she’ll ever fit into her precious red dress, leading to a prescription of strong pills from a disinterested doctor. Meanwhile Harry and friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) plan to sell more drugs than they consume to buy a ‘pound of pure’ and also fix up Tyrone’s beautiful girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) with a shop in which she can sell her self-designed clothes, much needed since her wealthy parents have cut her off. To begin with, the cash piles up; but as summer turns to autumn (or, appropriately, Fall) the supply of heroin dries up almost completely, forcing Tyrone – on bail – and Harry – increasingly unwell because of his habit – on a road trip in search of a score, while Marion goes down her own degrading avenues to get her fix. At the same time, Sara’s mental state deteriorates as she gets slimmer but no nearer the promised TV appearance.
Like Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream takes an essentially balanced look at addiction, showing the highs of drug use before delving into appalling lows. The crucial difference between Irvine Welsh and Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novels (and therefore between Boyle and Aronofsky’s films) is that the latter centres around Sara, not a young no-hoper junkie but a fragile, vulnerable widow. Sara’s plight – portrayed superbly by Ellen Burstyn – accompanies the downward trajectories of the younger characters and suggests that we can all fall prey to our needful natures. Leto, Connelly and Wayans – yes, he of Scary Movie infamy – bring an emotional and often literal nakedness to their characters, too, in performances which are honest and unshowy; while you might not instantly be drawn to them, their characters’ ambitions crumble in believable and totally heart-breaking fashion. And even if you believe their problems are self-inflicted, their punishments are harsh to say the least, a devastating warning about where dreams can lead and the polar opposite of a million saccharine ‘believe and you will achieve’ movies.
Were it simply competently directed, Requiem for a Dream would be a powerful and compelling film; Aronofsky’s vision lifts it into something rarefied and altogether brilliant. Initially, one is impressed by the snappy montages which reflect the casual nature in which the characters feed their addictions, bolstered by sound mixing which literally amplifies the effect of the visuals. As the film progresses, the images become increasingly disturbing, conveying the nightmares experienced by each of the film’s protagonists – for example Sara’s second visit to the doctor’s surgery, her ravenous fridge, or the claustrophobic use of the Snorricam (a body-mounted camera) to show Tyrone’s panic or Marion’s self-disgust – until the film finally becomes almost too painful to watch as four lives disintegrate simultaneously before our eyes. To be incredibly critical, the otherwise effective final shots of Harry, Sara, Tyrone and Marion lay on the symbolism with a slightly heavy hand (especially where Tyrone is concerned); and the conga that takes place around a disoriented Sara feels misguided given the sombre treatment of the rest of the story (I’m not saying that the humour is unwelcome, especially in the light of Aronofsky’s po-faced The Fountain: it’s just that it feels loose in an otherwise immensely tightly-marshalled film). However, these complaints fall by the wayside compared to the film’s achievements, including the immaculate realisation of Christopher McDonald’s Tappy Tibbons, the slick TV host who peddles the benefits of kicking addiction and holds Sara in thrall. Then there’s Clint Mansell’s terrific score, which complements the rhythm of the film and adds massively to the mood of a brewing storm. Lux Aeterna has become something of a musical cliché in the last ten years, but it’s hardly this movie’s fault that it’s proved so popular.
A common response to Requiem for a Dream is ‘it’s brilliant, but I never want to watch it again.’ To be completely honest, this film wouldn’t be on my list if I were planning my last ever day of movie-watching; but the fact that it is so affecting is testament to the skill with which it’s made. Aronofsky’s film is a triumph of plot, acting, style and sound which tells a raw, powerful story with a unique visual sense of stylised realism (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron) and challenges the viewer in a way few American-made films dare. I can give no higher compliment to the film than to say that, whilst profoundly distressing and often depressing, it always demands my complete attention and that (with a very few caveats) it demonstrates what movies, at their best, can do. Little wonder that Aronofsky felt he could fly pretty close to the sun when making The Fountain – he should have known how that sort of vaulting ambition often ends.