Challenge Week 37: Requiem for a Dream

This has been on my to-watch list for a very long time, thanks to falling in love with Aronofsky’s The Fountain and realizing I probably couldn’t call myself a huge Aronofsky fan without having seen his most well-known film. Fast-forward several years and I’ve now seen almost every Aronofsky film EXCEPT this one. Ha. I figured I’d get it during this challenge, and my friend Elisabeth came through.

The film follows four characters as they fall deeper and deeper into drug addiction. Jared Leto and his buddy Marlon Wayans continually hock Leto’s mom’s TV to score, but then move into dealing, hoping to hit it big (a plan Leto’s girlfriend Jennifer Connelly is on board with, because then she’d get the really good stuff). Leto’s mom Ellen Burstyn spends all her time watching a game show on TV, then gets hooked on diet pills that are basically speed when she thinks she might have a chance to be on the show. All these people are delusional and eventually their addictions get the better of them in horrific ways.

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It’s a well-made film, for the most part. All the actors are solid, especially Burstyn, who is incredible as an aging woman holding on to the one thing that she thinks will bring her happiness. Her speech to her son about the possibility of this game show being the one thing that makes her look forward to getting up in the morning is maybe the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, and yet one of the most relatable moments in the movie.

Stylistically, Aronosfky does a lot of very effective things, especially in the way he shoots the Burstyn story – he conveys her growing dependence on the diet pills succinctly, and also indicates what they really are wordlessly as she energetically cleans her apartment top to bottom. Eventually, through lens choice, focus, and soundtrack, her paranoia becomes almost visceral. Who would’ve thought that diet pills would be the most horrific drug on display here?

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The kids are doing cocaine and heroin and I don’t know what else, but it’s harder to empathize with their stories. I get that addiction is something you can’t control, but I just didn’t care about them that much, and mostly wanted to get back to the Burstyn story.

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Eventually, the film climaxes with the famous Lux Aeterna music (the whole score is very memorable, it’s easy to see why it’s been reused so much), in a montage where all the characters hit absolute rock bottom. And it’s narratively inevitable that they would, but here’s the thing. This scene is so intent on showing us how AWFUL their outcomes are that it’s both overdetermined (of COURSE they’re going to end up someplace like this) and almost sadistic. I don’t mean that we or even Aronofsky takes actual pleasure in their pain, but when a writer puts his characters though degrading, humiliating situations like this, there’s something almost gleefully cruel about it. It no longer feels like a cautionary tale but like a spiteful “I told you so.”

The film throughout suffers a bit from overdetermination and some anvil-heavy messaging, but the length and degradation of the climax pulled me completely out of it and I all but turned off the movie in disgust. Now, I want to be clear – I know the movie wants me to be disgusted at the things that addiction led the characters to. This is a fine distinction I’m making. I was disgusted at the filmmakers for driving this point home as far as they did. It’s a powerful film on a scene-by-scene level, on an acting level, on a musical level, and on a technical level, and I can see why people appreciate it so much. But as a whole, it’s an exercise in humiliation with a very superficial “drugs are bad” message. As if we didn’t already know that…why do we have to watch these characters put through all this just to learn something we already know?

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Stats and stuff…

2000, USA
directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Hubert Selby, Jr. and Darren Aronofsky
starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Requiem for a Dream entered my chart:

Requiem for a Dream > Il Postino (The Postman)
Requiem for a Dream < Paris, Texas
Requiem for a Dream < Shenandoah
Requiem for a Dream > Public Enemies
Requiem for a Dream < Bend of the River
Requiem for a Dream < Avenue Montaigne
Requiem for a Dream < A Wild Hare
Requiem for a Dream < Wuthering Heights (1939)
Requiem for a Dream < The Blair Witch Project
Requiem for a Dream < The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Requiem for a Dream < Dimensions of Dialogue
Requiem for a Dream < Somewhere in Time

Final #1620 out of 3703 films on my chart (56%)

It is now my #4 Darren Aronofsky film, my #2 Ellen Burstyn film, my #4 Jared Leto film, my #5 Jennifer Connelly film, my #5 Addiction Drama, and my #30 film of 2000.

Requiem for a Dream was recommended by Elisabeth Miller, a real-life friend.

A few more screenshots…

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  • I’m in a similar boat with Requiem for a Dream. I admire the filmmaking but don’t plan to ever watch it again. It’s just such a bleak look at humanity that it was a real struggle. I don’t mind a challenging viewing, but it was too much.