It's Been 20 Years Since 'Requiem for a Dream' Scarred Us All for Life

'Requiem for a Dream'
Credit: Artisan Entertainment
Requiem for a Dream is my anti-drug. 

One of my favorite questions to ask people is "What's a movie you saw when you were way too young?"

It usually gets the conversation going and allows everyone to talk about their deep emotional scars while simultaneously laughing. 

My answer to that question used to be Requiem for a Dream, but looking at the opioid crisis sweeping the nation, I feel like watching that movie when I was in eighth grade scared me straight.

All jokes aside, Darren Aronofsky's multi-generational look addiction and drugs is a masterpiece that I saw a few times. I shudder when I think about watching it again. 

It's an intimate portrait of loneliness, failure, and desperation to find meaning in anything. 

The movie came out twenty years ago, and while it has a few dated aspects, like the costumes and some of the lingo, the core of the film echoes through today. 

It's hard to imagine now, but Requiem for a Dream was only Aronofsky's second film. He was coming off the black and white Pi and ready to demand our attention as an auteur. Dream had flashy camera work and creative editing, it had a Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet score, and it had disturbing scenes I never thought would be captured in mainstream cinema. 

As Roger Ebert notes, Aronofsky loves using close-ups to accentuate the film's message.

"Aronofsky uses extreme closeups to show drugs acting on his characters," Ebert wrote. "First we see the pills, or the fix, filling the screen, because that's all the characters can think about. Then the injection, swallowing, or sniffingbecause that blots out the world. Then the pupils of their eyes dilate. All done with acute exaggeration of sounds. These sequences are done in fast-motion, to show how quickly the drugs take effectand how disappointingly soon they fade."

The script was an adaptation of a Hubert Selby Jr. novel the Guardian called "junkie miserablism."

Aronofsky collaborated with the author for the script, and I think we should reward it for its lack of subtlety. Requiem is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve... until it loses its arm from shooting too much heroin.  

The first line of the book is, “Harry locked his mom in the closet.”

As soon as Aronofsky read this, he knew it would be a powerful way of opening a film. 

It's a movie whose scenes and situations are so over-the-top and dark, that it actually gives the actors involved the chance to bring more nuance. This is not by accident. You have to think this is a calculated decision that Aronofsky has actually done again and again in other films like Noah, The Wrestler, and Black Swan

Aronofsky praised Ellen Burstyn, who really steals this movie and should have gotten more recognition for her role. 

“You could give her five or six notes, and she just bounces and bings between them and just completely hits each one on the nose, and, at the end, she’ll just do a little, extra corkscrew that will just completely screw you up, but it’s completely great and completely blows your mind even though you don’t really know what it is that you saw,” he said on the film's commentary.

Requiem for a Dream depicts four different kinds of drug addiction, each leading to different outcomes for the characters. Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn) is addicted to amphetamines, while Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), Tyrone Love (Marlon Wayans), and Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) are all addicted to heroin.

This is not like a typical drug abuse film in which the characters have successfully overcome their addiction or are on a path to recovery. Instead, it shows how drug abuse completely engulfs an individual to the point where they are unrecognizable.

It's absolutely black when it comes to endings. 

Aronofsky loves using these big situations and overt metaphors of world destruction and turning into an evil bird, where he lets the actors carry the parts that draw us in, the parts we can identify with, even after the darker parts too. 

And there are dark parts. There's a montage of gruesome things like the aforementioned amputation and the infamous "ass to ass" that hammers home the dangers of drugs, addiction, and how quickly things can spiral out of control. 

The movie is cut into four sections, divided by the seasons. They go from the spring of fun to the winter of depravity. Again, a little heavy-handed, but I think it shows a real common progression of how this stuff builds and takes over your life. 

Let's get the facts in the current day straight. According to recent CDC statistics, there has been a 22.4% increase in heroin abuse from 2014. While I joked about this film shaking my life up, I really think it might be beneficial for kids to see when they turn 13, as I did. 

Sure, it might really freak them out... but maybe we need it? I have no idea, I'm not a doctor. And I doubt many people would support my theory.

The movie had trouble achieving its R-rating. Before numerous edits, it was slapped with an NC-17 rating, which annoyed Aronofsky.

He said on the director's commentary, "There’s clearly a big, big hypocrisy on what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in movies. The fact that you can show as much gun violence as you want in a PG-13 movie as long as you don’t show blood I think is completely backwards thinking."

What I think the movie did more than anything else at the time was to begin a conversation about drugs and drug use. In fact, while researching this article, I stumbled upon a bunch of teaching curriculum for how to show this movie to students and extrapolate the lessons within it. 

This is not a movie that scarred me for life, but I think it scared me so much that I worry about even taking Advil today when I have a headache. 

At the end of the day, it was wild to revisit this movie twenty years after it came out and see how it holds up. 

Let me know what you think in the comments.      

Your Comment

1 Comment

I can't believe it's been 20 years! This is one of the movies that left an enormous impression on me. I watched it for the first time when I was 13-14 on VHS... And several times after that. It's probably one of the reasons why I've never taken any drugs. :D

November 3, 2020 at 11:50PM, Edited November 3, 11:50PM

Dunja Djudjic

Thank you for what I have been saying for 20 yrs. I work for a PC & finally got my 1st credit in 2013. This was the 1st project that inherently didn't show how tres chic' drug use is. This movie should be shown in every high school. It's a intimate glimpse into how you love the drug(especially heroin) more than anything or anyone in life. I spent 10 yrs in this poorly written sci-fi alternate universe & I wrote abt it, put it away & tried to put it in the back of my mind. I would never say the book & movie wud ever change a human from becoming an addict but it correctly shows what lengths a person goes for said drug.

November 4, 2020 at 10:54AM, Edited November 4, 10:54AM