on February 19, 2015
Dare to dream, but don’t dream too big. You start out selling nickel bags of heroin. Soon, you’ll have enough money to buy a pound, and then you’ll be living the easy life, your dreams having come true. Such are the plans of Harry Goldfarb, Marion Silver, and Tyrone C. Love, three Brighton Beach, New York youngsters with plans for a brighter future. Meanwhile, Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb has glamorous dreams of her own that involve being on television, if only she can fit into that pretty little red dress that she used to wear. Requiem for a Dream (2000) is a masterpiece of drama and tragedy from director Daren Aronofsky, which once seen will never be forgotten. Although it fits squarely into the genre of drama, it is atypical simply for being a completely irredeemable tragedy. It is a frenetic trip through the chaotic lives and drug-addled minds of four souls on their own personal roads to ruin. It is American Dream turned American Nightmare.
The film is composed like a symphony, with the structure of verse, chorus, verse, a nod to Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Suite, I suppose. Verse One, starts out with Harry Goldfarb stealing his mother’s television set along with his friend Tyrone, so they can score some heroin. The setting is a somewhat bleak city scene, the colors are desaturated, and there is a slight vignette around the edges of the screen. I think all of this suggests a dreamlike state of mind, and it is an effective introduction to who the characters are. The musical score, featuring the powerful Lux Aeterna by composer Clint Mansell begins with a four-piece string quartet tuning their instruments then builds powerfully to a fast pace, as Harry and Tyrone race through the streets with their stolen television set. For me, this helped to create a building level of excitement and anticipation, wondering what was to come. The sound effects are visceral, for examples, the fizzing of the heroin being cooked, the ecstatic sigh of the junky after shooting up, and the mindless droning cheers of television audiences. The chorus is a rapid sequence of images of cooking heroin, popping pills, a close-up of pupils dilating, and a microscopic view of heroin rushing into a vein.
In Verse Two, Summer, Harry and Tyrone hatch a plan to start selling heroin in larger and larger amounts in hopes of retiring early. Harry also plans to help Marion open a clothing store. Things are going well for the trio, as the heroin is selling fast, and their shoebox is filling up with cash just as quickly. The director uses a lot of time-lapse sequences to convey the passing of time, a very effective and engaging technique. Sara Goldfarb finds out she is going to be on television, and she struggles to fit into a red dress that she once wore. She goes to see a doctor for weight loss and begins taking an assortment of diet pills- uppers for weight loss, downers to help her sleep at night, and eventually Valium to control her anxiety and developing psychosis. We also see time-lapse sequences of her cleaning her apartment, which creates a sense of her increasing restlessness due to amphetamine use. Slow motion sequences and distorted sound are used to convey a sense that her thinking is becoming disorganized. Wide-angle, close-up shots of her sweat-beaded face make the viewer feel her fear and anxiety. This is clearly a woman who is no longer mentally well.
Verse Three, Fall, starts out with Tyrone’s drug supplier getting killed. Events begin to take a turn for the worse as the heroin supply dries up on the streets of the neighborhood. Sara Goldfarb builds up a tolerance to her medications and begins taking increasing amounts to feel the same euphoric effects. Again, we see wide-angle, close-up shots, bringing us into her psychosis. The music again starts very quiet in this scene and crescendos, creating a rising tide of anxiety. The lighting turns from bright and sunny to dark and brooding, and the colors are more saturated, as reality begins to set in for our characters. The characters’ appearances change, as they all begin to look strung-out with dark eyes. Sara’s psychosis grows as she begins to have hallucinations, which are portrayed with magic realism. Harry’s and Tyrone’s shoebox gradually empties out, as their heroin business goes bust. Harry and Marion are at each other’s throats about being out of drugs. Marion finds herself having sex for money and drugs. Harry develops a really nasty infection in a vein in his left arm. All of the characters push their limits to satisfy their addictions, and the consequences for everybody are devastating.
The film was released in the year 2000. As for social context, it is difficult to tie this in to any larger events in history. Attitudes about drug use in America were mostly pretty liberal at the time, and this film presents a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction without being preachy, and indeed, without moralizing at all. I have had some friends who have died as a result of drug use. So, I appreciated that the story showed the characters as beautiful and flawed human beings but not as immoral monsters. I believe drug addiction is a serious health issue and not a moral issue, and I think that may ultimately be the message of this movie. They are tragically flawed but not evil.
On a scale of A to F, I give the film an A-, simply because it is beautifully filmed and the dialogue is excellent. The minus comes from the fact that it is not something that I would want to watch over and over again. I have seen this film three times, and each time, it was successively more difficult to watch. Having said that, I would definitely recommend this movie, although it is deeply disturbing. It may leave you curled up in the fetal position, needing someone to hold you and soothingly whisper, “Everything is going to be alright.”