I never read anything about Requiem for a Dream except for an off-hand comment by a reviewer about another movie, "At least it's not as relentlessly depressing as Requiem for a Dream." That's when I realized that no, Requiem for a Dream has nothing to do with What Dreams May Come. In fact, the two are polar opposites.
With a completely fresh perspective (once I realized that Robin Williams was not going to pop up at any moment and crack a joke), I was able to drink in the awful, heady concoction that is Requiem for a Dream. And it's a testament to Darren Aronofsky that I walked away satisfied and even inspired by what ultimately is a tale of self-destruction.
The movie begins with Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) having an argument with his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) over a television set. It seems Sara is having a nervous breakdown and has decided to chain her television set to the wall to protect it "against robbers." Then, terrified of Harry, she locks herself in a closet. The two argue through the door...until we realize that the person Sara's really afraid of, who really would steal the television, is Harry himself. You see, Harry's a junkie.
In a routine that's so rote as to become familiar to everyone in the neighborhood, Harry rolls the television set to a pawn shop, who in turn gives him money for it. And then Sara goes back to pay for it. The exchange is a pittance (20 bucks), but it's all a lot of work to keep the illusion that Sara is not funding Harry's drug habit.
Requiem for a Dream is all about these kinds of illusions. Behind it all lurks the very real danger of addiction; to people, to things, to routines, to hope. The movie is truly a sad commentary over what happens when people lose hope. It is the death of the American dream.
From there, the movie branches into two different plots, following Sara and Harry's lives. Overweight, with her husband long dead and her only son stealing from her, Sara is a desperate, lonely woman. When she receives a phone call that she will appear on a television show (an infomercial that plays incessantly, nattering on about "Juice"), she struggles to fit into a red dress. It's the same dress she wore once before, when her husband was alive, during happier times. Fitting into the dress becomes an obsession, as she shifts from dieting to medication. The doctor doles out four kinds of drugs: three of them uppers and one a downer to make her sleep.
Harry, on the other hand, has dreams of his own. With his buddy Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans) and the love of his life, Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), they hope to stop dealing drugs by "one last score." Harry plans to open a boutique with Marion and live happily ever after. But all of them are addicted to cocaine and they come up with all sorts of excuses to snort it.
What's different about this movie from say, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is the ever-present Aronofsky. There's no shot he won't attempt, no horrible act he won't film, no technique he won't try. We watch Sara on speed, as she cleans her entire apartment from top to bottom. We are continuously assaulted by the RIP-SNORT-AHH rush of the drug trip, which hits the viewer like a rabbit punch to the head. We are with Sara during her bad trips and with Marion during her good trips. Dreams and hallucinations start to blend together, and always the soundtrack reminds us that this is a nightmare, not a comedy. These people are real. They're you're neighbors, your friends, your family...and they need your help.
But they never get it. Nobody has any safety net. Not Sara or Harry; not Tyrone who lost his mother when he was six; not Marion who sees a psychiatrist that lies to her parents about her treatment. These people have all been forgotten by friends and family. They grasp out in vain for dreams that are largely meaningless, struggle to achieve goals without any clear purpose, and ultimately fall, fall, fall...to their deaths, into insanity, or prison.
Every actor in this movie is at the top of their game. Leto does an admirable job as a bleary-eyed dreamer who keeps hoping to make a mythical "big score" that will save him from all the rot and ruin. Connelly's uses her angelic looks to full effect, such that her it's gut-wrenching to watch her beauty (and her innocence) used and abused. Wayans shows surprising range as a wayward soul who just wants to embrace his mother one more time. But the real star of the show is Burstyn, who displays amazing range as a mother and an old woman, going slowly mad in the humdrum repetition of her life. Her role is extremely convincing; enough to bring back some unpleasant memories of my own grandmother's mental decay.
Drug-trip movies rarely work well unless...well, unless you're on drugs. They tend to replicate the experience in such a fashion that if you're not high, the movie is confusing or just plain irritating. Trainspotting created the canvas for a movie like Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky takes it to a whole new level of dread, using sound as much as sight to reinforce the highs and lows of addiction.
Requiem for a Dream is not a movie for the faint of heart. But it is not exploitive or judgemental. Hubert Selby Jr. isn't just writing about people who are chained to their addictions, he's mourning them. With Aronofsky's deft touch, a grim book truly rises to the level of a requiem, filled lights and sound that follow its poor subjects to their grim conclusions. A horrible, awful, beautiful masterpiece.