Requiem for a Dream

| December 1, 2000

When I sat down to watch Requiem for a Dream I expected your average hip heroin flick mixed with a trip hop soundtrack, seasoned with libidinous junkies and emblazoned with politically correct messages like, “Hey, dude, they look cool, but don’t do drugs, okay? Later, man!” But thank God it didn’t turn out as expected.
Actually, I saw this heart-wrenching trip twice just to completely understand what the collective genius of director Darren Aronofsky and American novelist/screenwriter Hubert Selby, Jr. were conveying in each and every perfect sequence. Each shot had a purpose that went beyond simply being “cool” and entertaining. Though many people will see Requiem as a purely stylistic drug film, it is brimming with substance. Charlie’s Angels is style, small-minded pomp for the masses.
Requiem is art. Doesn’t matter how savvy the shots are, without good material, you have nothing. Therefore, in order to appreciate Requiem, it’s pivotal to know the genuine spirit lurking behind the film, and I’m not talking about the director. I’m referring to Hubert Selby, Jr., one of America’s most talented contemporary novelists. No, he’s not Hemingway. English professors don’t assign his underground 1954 classic Last Exit to Brooklyn to snot-nosed students, mostly because Selby represents the underbelly of America: the bum, the junkie, the psychopath. But as he shows these characters in their brightest and most tragic moments, he reminds the audience that everyone’s the same – all susceptible to ruin and spiritual depravity. Requiem is not a public service announcement against drug abuse (Less Than Zero) or a glamorous depiction of a counterculture (Trainspotting) –Requiem is a heartfelt American poem.
Selby, who co-wrote the script with Aronofsky, which was based on Selby’s 1974 novel, avows he cried when he first viewed Requiem. I did too. Behind the shock, the graphic flashes of bruises, scars and electroshock therapy, lies a certain innocence and hope, which is that most traditional of themes, the American dream. Most refreshing is how the filmmakers mold their message through undeniably real characters: Brooklyn natives with modest needs, dreaming on a minute level. Our story revolves around Sara Goldfarb (the brilliant Ellen Burstyn), the widow suffering from an addiction to sugar and game shows. When she gets an anonymous phone call telling her that she’ll be a contestant on her favorite show, she immediately tries on her special dress, which no longer fits.
In a desperate need to fulfill her dream, Sara begins popping diet pills. Soon enough she’s hooked, so much so that the refrigerator, her sworn enemy, starts attacking her in her drug addled delusions. Sara’s son, Harry (Jared Leto), is a junkie who wants to find that big score so he and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayons) can start selling and stop using. And Harry’s girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), also a junkie, makes plans to open a small boutique. Aronofsky takes us on an hallucinogenic trip through this collective dream. There’s a moment in the film where you’re pulling for these characters, yearning for their dreams to become a reality. But, like all junkies, they get too high on their own supply and melt down to a more ghastly level than when they started.
The genius of Requiem, and Selby’s other writings, lies in the connection these derelicts share with the rest of society. Junkies aren’t interesting because of their differences, but their similarities. We see ourselves in them. They quit on life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t dream. This movie achieves a sense of connection that films such as Trainspotting strained to find, but never could. It’s a violent, hard trip, but nonetheless very, very real. The fact that the MPAA slapped this movie with an NC-17 rating, thereby making it nearly impossible for kids to see, reflects how pathetic Americans are when it comes to facing problems. While shallow films like Charlie’s Angels, all tits and ass and violence without a shred of honesty, are thought of as audience friendly, movies that can change, and possibly save, lives, are considered too risqué.
But that’s the point in Requiem: Americans are desperate for human emotional stability, we’ll do stupid things like watch mindless crap and stick needles in our arms in order to relieve our bleeding souls. Addiction goes farther than drugs in this film, spanning food, television, suntanning; anything that makes us forget our stations and dream of a better world. In the end, we’re all junkies, spoon-fed by the bullshit, feinting for the truth — each of us a stanza in Selby’s tragic poem.

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