"Please don't turn back. Please be committed. Please keep that passion for life growing. Because I'm living proof that it works."—Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald)
In his second feature, Darren Aronofsky creates the most impressive, philosophically risky, and artistically satisfying American film since Fight Club.
Facts of the Case
As television huckster Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald) chants with his fans, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) locks herself in the closet while her son Harry (Jared Leto) steals her TV. Behind them, we hear a string quartet tuning up for its requiem.
Begin: Summer. Harry and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) push the television through the streets of Coney Island, the Thunderbolt roller coaster looming in the background like a monstrous serpent. This has become a cycle: they steal Sara's television, sell it for drug money, then Sara buys it back to start the cycle anew. Sara needs the TV, because she is addicted to it. When she receives a phone call telling her she is going to be a contestant on a game show, she immediately pulls out her favorite red dress, her fondest memory of her dead husband and estranged son. But the dress no longer fits, and when a friend recommends an accommodating doctor, Sara begins collecting a rainbow of pills.
Meanwhile, Harry and his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) dream of escape, of making the big score that will land them enough drugs to never need to scrounge again. Never mind that little sore on Harry's arm. Never mind that Tyrone is marked in a drug war. Never mind the tension and pain of the world. One little shot can make it all better…
Drugs. Our word "pharmacy" derives from the Greek work "pharmakon," which means "medicine." It also means "poison," depending on the context. The word "drug" takes on an ethereal quality in our language. It is not about itself, that is, the word does not attach to a thing, establish a singular essence. When my wife (as an elementary school guidance counselor) teaches a lesson on drugs (an absolute necessity given the dangerous prevalence of drug abuse among children), she is often caught by the inescapable irony that some "drugs" are good for you. Some are authorized by society. Some are monitored, and we must decide the degree of their misuse. And some are prohibited altogether, with vague reasoning as to why. Thus, drugs are not defined by their essences, but by power. And power, as Foucault tells us, is always about the imposition of desire.
This is not a drug movie. The drug itself loses its presence, fades into the background. Aronofsky uses "hip-hop montages" of the mechanical act of taking drugs, as the drugs themselves become timing beats to break up the action—the real action going on inside the characters' heads. For perhaps the first time on film, Requiem for a Dream steers us away from the drugs themselves and towards the phenomenology of addiction. Although often compared to that "other drug movie" of 2000, Traffic, it is important to note that Soderbergh's film is about the technical mechanisms of drugs and the drug trade, focused less on the psychological roots of addiction than on the social structures (again, systems of power) that define the "essence" of drugs in the world. By contrast, Requiem for a Dream eschews the epic scope of Traffic in favor of a fish-eye view of four characters trapped in a Coney Island of the mind (to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti): the rollercoaster of addiction, whether the addiction is heroin, speed, time, memory, pot, coffee, or television. These are all merely variables to be plugged into what William S. Burroughs called "the algebra of need."
This is a movie about that need, about desire. In Being and Time, Heidegger analyzes the various manifestations of desire, the willfulness of Being that is projected out into the world. We find ourselves thrown into the world, and we grasp at it. We desire, we want, we become addicted to the world outside us: "Addiction and urge are possibilities rooted in the thrownness of Dasein [Being]." We live with addiction—we are already addicted to it. It marks our presence in the world and our desire to be outside in it.
The characters in Requiem for a Dream are already addicts before the film begins. There is no grace period, no warm up. Even Sara, caught in the glow of the television as her stash of chocolates begins to run low, is dependant on things to ground her. It does not matter what things—television, diet pills, her red dress—any more than it matters what drugs her son and his friends take at any given time—heroin, pot, speed. Again, the physical presence of the drug (always hidden, wrapped in little bags or bottles, until ready to be consumed) is less important than the psychological root of addiction itself.
In its only concession to melodrama, Requiem for a Dream marks the exteriority of the real world by maintaining Hubert Selby, Jr.'s three act seasonal structure from the novel. Things look up in Summer. Sara embarks on her diet in anticipation of her impending appearance on television. Harry and Marion declare their love. Harry and Tyrone have big plans to score selling drugs.
Director Darren Aronofsky's favorite image in the film is the dilating pupil: the eye as it opens wide to the wonders of the hit. But those eyes never see the outside world—they only shift the gaze back toward interior spaces. In a stunning sequence (one of many in a film whose every frame seems calculated with painterly precision), Harry realizes his mother is hooked on diet pills, and he berates her for becoming an addict. Is Harry a hypocrite? Of course, all addicts think they have control, that they are not addicted. Others may be weak and threatened, but I can quit any time. In a deleted sequence from the film, Harry, Tyrone, and Marion try to quit drugs, stare at the room for a while, then declare that they have proven their control over the addiction—then they promptly go back to their drugs. Again, desire and power.
Power becomes a specter that haunts our powerless characters. The glow of sodium vapor lights. The flicker of the television screen. The presence of media power, the ability of media to connect the subjects of our world, is almost constant in the film. Of course, televisions are omnipresent, haunting every home. In one of the few lighthearted moments in the film, Harry and Marion throw airplanes made of newspaper from the roof of a building. Later, Marion assembles collages from photo clippings. But these tenuous connections slip away as the film progresses. As we reach Fall, the outside world slips away. Time collapses. Hallucinations intrude into the television signal. By Winter, reality for each of the characters folds in itself, and we slide into their collective nightmare, one of the most harrowing sequences ever committed to film.
There is no Spring.
To say that Requiem for a Dream is an emotionally taxing and depressing film is too easy. Of course it is. If addiction is always with us, as a fundamental possibility of our being, then we are already taxed by the anxiety that always marks our very presence in the world. Although the characters do not see through their dilated pupils, we do. The pharmakon, the drug, has no curative properties for them, because it never regrounds them in the world, only forcing more retreat. Sara: into her fantasy of Tappy Tibbons. Marion and Harry: into their fantasy of pure love. Tyrone: into his memories of childhood. And each clings more tenaciously to the fantasy as reality dissolves.
Darren Aronofsky focuses on the subjectivity of each character through the use of handheld cameras, split screens, and expressionistic lighting. Showing the technical bravado of his first feature, Pi (which I reviewed some months back), Aronofsky demonstrates an impressive maturity, always yoking the visual trickery to his characters. Subtle computer effects, time lapse photography, and so on, can all be conspicuously "artsy," but Aronofsky shows his real talent as a director in drawing out impressive performances from his actors within the confines of the photographic sleight-of-hand. In one heartbreaking scene late in the film, Harry and Marion talk on the phone, shortly before each goes off to doom. The whispery conversation says almost nothing on the surface, but the desperation in the actors' voices carry an iceberg of trauma below. The performances by Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly, as well as a surprisingly deep performance by Marlon Wayans, are all marvelous enough to carry the film by itself. But particular attention must be paid to Ellen Burstyn. Much has been said about her in this film, but it is still difficult to describe the depth of her work here. As Sara progressively falls apart, you can see her thoughts reflected in her wandering eyes. Every stutter, every wandering glimpse, shows a lonely woman struggling for some anchor as she drifts in the world. It has been said that the measure of great acting is when you can see a character thinking. If so, the terrifying journey through Sara's mind is marked as strongly by Burstyn's ability to communicate Sara's desperation to us as by any of Aronofsky's expressionistic tricks used to heighten the trauma to a fever pitch.
In addition to the visual accomplishments of Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the emotional pressure of the film is reinforced in a pulsating score by Clint Mansell, performed by Kronos Quartet. Structured as a musical requiem, the score, as well Brian Emrich's soundscape, envelopes the action, making strong use of the 5.1 audio landscape. Listen for the hum of the television floating at the edge of the Marion's room, as she dolls up in preparation for her final descent. Listen for the subtle click of the refrigerator's compressor (that damned refrigerator, always looming and taunting) as Harry abandons his mother one last time. Sound and editing fuse during the transitional drug-taking montages, which pop out in order to mark narrative shifts in tone (Harry cries in a taxi—pop pop—then stares blankly; time slows for Sara—pop pop—she cleans and preens furiously). Again, Aronofsky steers our attention away from the paraphernalia of drugs in order to remain focused on the psychological effect of addiction, the before and after stages of drug use.
His director's commentary on the film stresses the importance of the performances and how the actors brought out the complexities of the characters. This is particularly interesting, considering the importance of Aronofsky's visual experimentation in the film. But he seems less concerned with the particulars of his own contributions than with his great team of collaborators. Of course, he singles out the influence of Hubert Selby, Jr., as well as Ellen Burstyn's inspired work as Sara. But Aronofsky does take time to point out the expressionistic techniques he used in the film. All in all, this is a well-paced and informative track. On the more technical side, a second commentary track by director of photography Matthew Libatique covers a host of production details not described by Aronofsky himself, discussing lighting and photographic effects mostly. This is less dry than it might sound, as Libatique is also quite concerned that the technical stylings of the film match the performances. I wish the actors had gathered together for a commentary track of their own, but the tracks included here cover plenty of ground.
Artisan also provides a host of extra features, grouped together in a brilliantly designed menu meant to mimic a Tappy Tibbons infomercial (right down to the static on the screen—so do not adjust your set). Six deleted scenes, mostly pieces of a deleted sequence (noted above) in which the characters try to quit drugs cold turkey, plus a scene of Tyrone explaining his dreams of childhood to the audience. Interesting stuff, but all fairly redundant. All are offered with optional commentary by Aronofsky. In addition, a long clip of Marlon Wayans improvising does show that although the movie itself is depressing, it is obvious that the crew had a lot of fun on set. Hubert Selby, Jr. is featured in two more clips, first reading a passage from his novel to Ellen Burstyn to help her focus for a scene, then in an extended version of his cameo as a prison guard.
The Marlon Wayans improvisation clip and the presence of Selby on set to prepare Burstyn suggest Aronofsky's deft hand with actors. This is reinforced by a 35-minute collection of home movies loosely assembled into "The Making of Requiem for a Dream." Aronofsky narrates, pointing out details in the loose manner of a commentary track, mentioning the technical requirements for the various shots when necessary, but mostly noting how the actors handled the particular scenes. He repeats some of these points in a six-minute "Anatomy of a Scene" segment done for the Sundance Channel. We are also treated to a pair of theatrical trailers (as with Pi, these are examples of stunning editing), two television spots, and a montage from the hypnotic web site (linked below—go check it out). Extensive cast and crew profiles and some production notes (mostly covering material including elsewhere in the supplements) are also included.
The most welcome addition to the supplements is a 20-minute interview by Ellen Burstyn of Hubert Selby, Jr. It is just as interesting seeing Burstyn in her normal state, intelligent and rational (making her transformation in the film into Sara seem that much more impressive), as it is seeing the cantankerous Selby explain his lifelong fascination with medical and psychological trauma. "You have a talent for staying alive," Burstyn tells Selby, as they discuss the difficult problem of finding empathy for his self-destructive literary characters. His insights into the metaphysics of the gaze (how we project our subjectivity onto the objective world) and the catharsis of empathy (perhaps the healing quality of the pharmakon?) add to one's appreciation of the film's thematic depth.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only criticism of Artisan's presentation is the lack of subtitles. Under normal circumstances, something might be said about the depressing nature of the film, and the high level of violence and sex towards the climax. But the film is supposed to be disturbing and shocking toward the end, and if you find yourself offended and frightened, then Aronofsky has done his job right. In other words, do not waste your time with the watered-down Blockbuster cut of the movie, since it deliberately diminishes the impact of the characters' intertwining freefalls into degradation. As Harry Knowles points out in his essay including in the package insert, this film should be required viewing to warn kids of the consequences of addiction (take a look at my Deep Focus column on classroom scare films for more on this).
Darren Aronofsky shows his continuing maturity as a director in this sophomore feature. Given the artistic and emotional risks taken here, we can only guess at what Warner Brothers will let him get away with in his upcoming Batman film. In any case, Requiem for a Dream is highly recommended for many reasons: its brave direction, its stunning and memorable performances, its complex thematic exploration of addiction.
This court applauds director Aronofsky for his attempts to act in the public good. Artisan is praised for their attention paid to the film, but is admonished for neglecting subtitles. All those present in the courtroom are warned that this film is an object lesson in the risks of addiction, and you should consider this lesson accordingly.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Darren Aronofsky
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