Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem For A Dream” (2000)

Independent Spirit Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Female Lead

Notable Festivals: Cannes (out of competition), Toronto

2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is often cited as the de facto film that “you must see, but never want to watch again”– it’s a gut-wrenching, nauseating, and nightmarish experience that aims to convey the inescapable horrors of addiction.  My first experience with the film was a memorable one– I was in high school, and one day a group of us gathered together in my friend’s basement to watch the film.  For two hours, we were glued to the TV screen, its lurid blue glow being the only light source in the room.  We were too morbidly curious and profoundly horrified to turn away, and by the time the movie was over, we immediately burst outside into the bright spring sunshine and ran around like idiots given a second chance at life.  It’s nearly impossible to achieve such a visceral film experience in the comforts of your own home, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM delivered that and so much more, besting any of Nancy Reagan’s efforts to keep kids off drugs with a harrowing and uncompromising audiovisual experience.  

For me, and for much of the film world, this was the first impression that director Darren Aronofsky left on pop culture.  He had broken out into the indie scene in a big way with 1998’s PI, but he was still an unknown quantity in the eyes of the larger cinematic community.  That all changed with the release of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, still considered to be one of the most controversial films of all time almost two decades after its release.  Aronofsky’s association with the project reaches all the way back to film school, beginning with his making of the short student film, FORTUNE COOKIE, in 1991– an adaptation of author Hubert Selby Jr.’s short story of the same name.  Selby was an influential force in Aronofsky’s artistic development, leading the burgeoning young filmmaker to purchase his 1978 novel, “Requiem For A Dream”, shortly after finishing school.  By the time he was cutting PI in 1998, Aronofsky had barely cracked Selby’s book open, so he lent it to his producing partner Eric Watson to read during an upcoming trip. As Aronofsky notes in his director’s commentary for the film, Watson would immediately approach him upon his return with an urgent desire to adapt Selby’s book for the screen.  

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is, at its most basic level, an anti-drug film– but that’s not exactly where Aronofsky’s interest lies.  Instead, his approach is informed by a simple question with profound implications: “what is a drug?”.  Far from simply being a story about narcotics, Aronofsky uses the framework of Selby’s story to dissect the inherently-addictive nature of our pleasure centers.  This inquiry drives the creation of a rich tapestry of characters, all addicts in their own ways, clustered together in Aronofsky’s native Brooklyn in an ambiguously contemporaneous setting– it could be today, or yesterday, or 1973.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM marks Aronofsky’s first time working with well-known talent, establishing his artistic reputation for driving his cast to deliver career-best performances.  Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans headline the film, each giving the entirety of themselves over to their roles.  Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a scrawny, strung-out heroin junkie whose addiction compels him to continually steal his mother’s TV set and sell it at a pawn shop so he can score his next fix.  Bursty would take home an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb– a frail and delusional recluse whose drug is the euphoria of adoration, causing her to go to dramatic lengths to lose weight for what she thinks will be an upcoming appearance on a television program hosted by Christopher McDonald’s flashy oil salesman, Tappy Tibbons.  Connelly plays Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver, an aspiring dress designer with a dark and moody temperament.  Wayans eschews his screwball comedic persona for a rare serious turn as Harry’s best friend, Tyrone Love– an up-and-coming drug dealer who isn’t as street-smart as he thinks he is.  Aronofsky structures the cascading rhythms of these characters’ arcs as something of a symphony, evoking the musical nature of the film’s title as he divides the action into four distinct movements (spring, summer, fall, & winter) that gradually build in intensity towards a shocking and deliriously-intense catharsis.  

Aronofsky retains several prior collaborators from PI and his student work, including Sean Gullette and Mark Margolis, who cameo as an unnervingly pompous yuppie and a lazy pawn shop dealer, respectively.  Stanley B. Herman also makes his requisite appearance as a variation on the creepy pervert he’s played since FORTUNE COOKIE, unwittingly giving the film one of its oft-quoted lines in his lecherous “ass-to-ass” chant during a nightmarish sex party sequence.  Technical collaborators like cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell also return to lend their talents in service to Aronofsky’s vision.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM presents old-fashioned 1.85:1 35mm film in radical new ways, pairing his picture with a hyper-aggressive sound mix to completely assault the senses.  A muted, naturalistic color palette complements a distinctly gritty texture while evoking the ramshackle grime of Coney Island with buzzing fluorescents and unforgiving sunlight.  Indeed, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is a decidedly ugly film, but one that’s nevertheless so richly-realized and surreal we can’t help but be drawn in.  Aronofsky and Libatique employ a variety of classical dolly, handheld and Steadicam movements in addition to expressionistic techniques like distorted lenses, spiraling overheads, extreme undercranking, and Aronofsky’s signature actor-anchored “Snorricam” shot, all of which editor Jay Rabinowitz chops up into a delirious split-screen brew that simulates the experience of an increasingly-bad trip.  Mansell’s score would prove instantly iconic upon the film’s release, imprinting itself into the collective pop culture psyche with its dark techno baseline and an intense string theme performed by Kronos Quartet.  Indeed, the score was a breakout piece of work for both Mansell and Kronos Quartet, helping to ensure the film’s longevity with a theme that has since been used and repurposed many times over, perhaps most famously as a battle theme for the trailer of Peter Jackson’s second installment of his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE TWO TOWERS (2002).  

PI may have been Aronofsky’s breakout, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is the film that cemented his artistic aesthetic in the eyes of the public, establishing his technical and thematic signatures.  Having grown up around Coney Island and greater Brooklyn, the world of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is one that the director knows intimately and completely.  His familiarity imparts the film with an unforgettable sense of place, helping his audience to understand the context of the world that his characters wish to escape via their various addictions.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM also represents the perfection of a technique he had been experimenting with since his earliest student work: rapid-fire inserts that depict distinct activities in extreme close-up.  Referring to these mini sequences as “hip hop montages”, Aronofsky employs this technique throughout the film as something akin to a punctuation mark preceding some of the film’s most bizarrely surreal images.  The audience is able to experience the same kind of rush his characters feel as they shoot up or pop pills– but just as we get to share in their loopy delight, we also must endure their pain and suffering as their addictions increasingly take hold.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is nothing if not a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction, a key pillar in Aronofsky’s career-long exploration of the dark side of the human experience.  Aronofsky shows how our ability to subvert our own biological chemistry and willfully manipulate our perception of reality comes at a high price– the more we give ourselves over to narcotically-induced euphoria, the more we lose of our authentic selves.  Addiction slowly saps of us our humanity, dimming the bright light of our individuality until eventually the light goes out.  Aronofsky’s inherent understanding of the human condition allows him to depict addiction for the waking nightmare it truly is, exposing drug culture’s sexy and appealing aspects as ultimately hollow and elusive.

Nearly twenty years after its premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM has steadfastly maintained its reputation as one of the most controversial films ever made.  The controversy began before its theatrical release, with the MPAA refusing to rate the film any lower than NC-17 due to, of all things, its sexual content.  To his credit, Aronofsky courageously refused to cut the film– after all, the shocking nature of its content was integral to the conveyance of the core message.  An NC-17 rating would mean that commercials couldn’t air on TV and prints ads couldn’t appear in newspapers, virtually guaranteeing a box office catastrophe.  In the end, Aronofsky chose to release the film unrated.  This move would allow him to distribute the film without edits or censorship, but it also meant that no mainstream theater chain would show the film either.  Thankfully, Aronofsky was able to leverage his indie cred and the film’s public controversy into a respectable run in arthouse theaters.  The film’s cult status was cemented with its successful performance in the home video market, with many no doubt adding the DVD to their collection as a must-own work of cinema that they’ll knowingly never take down from the shelf.  More important than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s profit margins, its warm critical reception reinforced the power of Aronofsky’s unique voice in cinema.  He had delivered on PI’s artistic promise with an unforgettable powerhouse of a film that served as the culmination of his early directorial output.  In closing this first chapter out on such a strong note, Aronofsky would begin a new one well-poised to meet the greater challenges of a higher artistic plane.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Lionsgate.


Produced by: Eric Watson, Palmer West

Written by: Darren Aronofsky, Hubert Selby Jr.

Director of Photography: Matthew Libatique

Production Designer: James Chinlund

Edited by: Jay Rabinowitz

Music by: Clint Mansell