Requiem for a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Hard drugs aren’t my thing, personally; maybe it’s because of all the time I spent poring over the gorgeous art and sad personal declines of acid casualties like Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson, Skip Spence and Ringo Starr but I don’t think at any point in my life that I ever was the sort of person who felt a need to “experiment” with all that. From what I know of them, I feel like they probably do more harm than good, and to the point, more harm than I would prefer to have to deal with. (Truth: I’ve never even tried pot, which obviously isn’t a hard drug, or had any interest in doing so.) In short, I’m warning you with peace and love that I don’t like drugs, and I will go ahead and be impolite and say that drug users who try to “recruit” irritate the hell out of me and have since before I even knew David Crosby’s name.

But what I always hated much more — from the time I was in elementary school — was the preaching against drug use, the PSAs and DARE classes and the pervasive War on Drugs messages that had to be brought into everything. I was shattered when I saw cartoon characters I liked giving their audiences the nannyism bullshit. For my generation, there was nothing sacred; if it was supposed to be fun, if it was one of the few escapes a young school-attending child is allowed to have, the adults of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton period would find a way to turn it into a lecture, a harrassment, a violation. None of their condescending, pedantic whining ever produced any results, nor will it ever. If you are the type of person that is going to dabble in drugs, you will do it no matter what people tell you to do when you’re eleven years old or younger (or older). If you’re the type who won’t, you won’t, and incidentally you won’t appreciate how much you have to hear about it — all the loaded, one-sided cautionary tales, all the dubious science, all the (fucking) buzzwords, all the scare tactics, all the lies and half-truths, the many nefarious wastes of money and time.

I was glad to escape this, in theory. But you never really do. Witness Requiem for a Dream, which is an anti-drug PSA stretched to ungodly length to little effect. For whatever reason, Requiem has had praise heaped upon it and has become a modern near-classic; apparently there is an appreciation for preaching so long as it’s wrapped in a neat enough package. Director Darren Aronofsky knows how to get the crowd’s attention, but he doesn’t seem to know much else, except favored stocks of symbolism passed down through generations of bad “art” movies. His fast cutting does have story correspondence, at least; there is a point to all of the frenetic editing. But his script, written with the late novelist Hubert Selby Jr. — one of the most cartoonishly maudlin writers in American history — is so terrible, so one-dimensional and bereft of complexity, that no amount of bombastic style can compensate.

Style is what Aronofsky has if he has anything; I enjoyed his 1998 film, Pi, far more than I expected to. I wasn’t impressed with its empty philosophical rambling or its meandering subtext, I just thought it was a lot of fun. And fun is something absent from Requiem for a Dream, except of course for the occasional awe the director attempts to instill with his catalog of Cool Shots!™, more famously into making us feel all the horrible shit its characters go through, putting us through the wringer enough that being rendered speechless by the film and loudly claiming the inability to ever watch it again, maaan is almost a generational catchphrase. Trainspotting throttled me, and it was witty, and it wasn’t a scold. The only actual value of Requiem is for someone secretly nostalgic for the DARE histrionics of our collective youth. My DARE officer ended up going to prison for corruption and eventually died there. As for wit? Aronofsky’s cinematic legacy is frat dudes walking around yelping “ass to ass” in an obnoxious accent, this film’s curb stomp.

Requiem is ostensibly a story of desperation in the lives of three mysteriously clean, attractive young addicts, those being famed pretty-eyed boy and former teen heartthrob Jared Leto, gifted and perpetually abused Jennifer Connelly, and your best pal Marlon Wayans (all of whom give solid performances). The story of their ascent into wealth and gradual sink into desperation, withdrawal, and, ultimately, nasty deathly hopelessness is contrasted with that of Leto’s mom, who is hooked on diet pills. She is portrayed with aplomb and courage but no subtlety or believability whatsoever by a great actress, Ellen Burstyn, who offers perhaps her worst-ever performance (naturally, she was up for an Oscar). Whatever the merit of the acting, the blame really lies with the director and Selby. The characters are shrill, the development of them is astoundingly poor. Virtually nothing that they do makes sense or is fully justified even in the internal logic of the movie. If drugs offer them nothing but shitty times and a downward spiral, if drugs are so inhumanely terrible, why do they use them in the first place? The movie lacks honesty in this regard, and it does not deserve the trust of the viewer. And sure, there are a lot of infomercials on basic cable, but maybe change the station once in a while.

The film is reputed to be almost unwatchably disturbing, even by those who love it. Am I desensitized? Heartless? Because I didn’t find it the least bit disturbing. It was occasionally gross, but that’s about it. I found it more laughable than scary at most points. After all, how much more nakedly self-righteous could this movie get before it became a satire of the literature and culture of the War on Drugs mentality? (You could make an incredible coffee table book, a true portrait of the era, with stuff like this and this.) Jared Leto apparently didn’t take junkie class so he puts his heroin needle in the same exact place over and over again, then goes to a doctor to get his blackened arm checked out, and miraculously the doctor violates every imaginable ethics code by having him sent to jail because he’s a druggie, not even touching the arm. Uh-huh. The same kid’s mom, a woman in her sixties, is sent through electroshock therapy without anesthesia and does not die! Right. It’s not depressing that Aronofsky puts a lot of stock in his ability to artificially shock people — it’s depressing that he’s apparently correct to do so.

Defenders admit that it’s a “worst case scenario” movie; all of its characters apparently have personalities so addictive, psychological infrastructures so weak, that a week without drugs can land them in jail, with an arm amputated, or forced to have anal lesbian sex in front of a bunch of guys. (Interesting that we saved the sexual humiliation for the female character; what possible reason might there be for that, I wonder?) But this turns the whole show into such a big lie. Aronofsky has to stack the decks to make his visuals more self-consciously Shocking, so as a mirror of real life it’s useless. And the dishonesty is only there to enhance the movie’s loaded visual “power”, to throw in as many disgusting sequences as a hundred-odd minutes will hold. Hence, the story becomes completely pointless… but it still sells itself as a gritty portrait of addiction, when Aronofsky is only bothering to tell the story with its many “gotcha!” visuals for the benefit of his own career, which is obvious since his unfiltered contempt for the idiots in the film is matched only by my own.

One of the most intriguing* aspects of the descent of the characters that populate Requiem for a Dream, whose names I don’t recall and don’t care to look up, is that every severe problem comes not from heroin or coke or E so much as their illegality, or in some cases from their misuse. Marlon Wayans has to deal with crooks, because the drugs he’s distributing are illegal. Jared Leto doesn’t want to see a doctor because he’s worried he’ll be busted. Jennifer Connelly has to go have sex she doesn’t want to have in order to get money and/or drugs because the shit isn’t regulated so a perv who’s got a thing for girl-girl action (We Are All Guilty) can get the upper hand. Their sources dry up because of the illegitimacy of the channels. Meanwhile, Leto’s problem with the arm comes out of his own stupidity, as does his mother’s diet pill addiction; she misuses the pills, so she deals with the consequences.

Speaking of Burstyn’s subplot, how in the world was that not comically ridiculous? Yeah, I “get” the “point”… she is addicted to food, to TV, to diet pills, but I don’t really see where it’s going. Again, maybe the TV would drive her less crazy if she watched more than one show? There was never a movie made of the comic strip Cathy but this film features walking refrigerators and desserts that come flying out of the ceiling, and Burstyn probably says “ACK!” once or twice. This certainly feels like Aronofsky is trying to fake his way through storytelling; the repetition of the TV show is a Robert Altman trick, poorly used here. Burstyn’s apartment is admittedly nightmarish; maybe the place needs, I dunno, a plant?

Movies made in this decade have seldom been as manipulative as this one; luckily, if you’ve seen more than a few dozen feature films, you’ll be able to call every plot point before it happens. The total predictability and lack of originality here makes one long for even the at-least-honest hypocrisy of Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a pretty damned annoying movie that looks like a masterstroke side by side with this one. As for the people who say that this film should be screened for every high school student in the country: Fuck you. Go listen to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” again and keep telling yourself that’s a good way for kids to learn history while you’re at it.

I don’t need morality plays in my life; I doubt Aronofsky even believes much of what he puts up here, and if he does, I’m sure he considers himself exempt from any problem of addiction; the movie doesn’t seem to do a whole lot to link its weirdo characters to some larger and perhaps more inclusive point of reference. The “addiction in all forms” nonsense is just an excuse, and an overly simplistic one at that. If you try to form a straight-line polemic in a movie, you’re bound to end up with something noticeably unsophisticated in narrative terms, and this is a good example. The director’s attempts at compensation through wild visual choices is half-assed. Maybe he really is trying to tell us something: Drumroll please. The message of Requiem for a Dream is…. Addiction is bad! Thanks for the tip, bro!

* = Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.

[Originally posted in 2007, with slight modifications.]

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