Few films are anywhere near as well made–as fierce and committed–as Requiem for a Dream, which stands as a 20-year-old landmark in an especially fertile era of New York indie filmmaking and one of the most expertly executed feel-bad narratives in the history of popular culture. Darren Aronofsky is a hell of a director, but he’s always been a little, well, intense for my taste. He’s got vision and passion to spare, and he clearly inspires dedication and devotion from his actors, yet I always feel there’s something critical missing from the films themselves. If π is David Lynch without an angle on the truly bizarre and Black Swan is David Cronenberg without the painful psychological acuity, then Requiem for a Dream is John Waters without the sense of humor. I know Waters is friendly with Aronofsky, but imagining him watching this in a dark theatre and positively cackling at its most painfully outré gambits is what helps get me through its pitiless final act.
Based on a Hubert Selby Jr. novel, Requiem for a Dream is the story of four addicts. There’s Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and his buddy Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), two small-time drug dealers whose lives spiral out of control when the supply of smack they’ve become physically, emotionally, and economically reliant on dries up. There’s Marion (Jennifer Connelly), Harry’s beautiful girlfriend from a wealthy family who sticks with him because, well, largely because he’s the antipode to everything she hates about her rich family. And, most importantly, there’s Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), who shuts herself in a closet when she can’t deal with her son, who is about to pawn her TV set for drug money for apparently the umpteenth time. In the film’s opening scene, which plays out in an unbearably tense split-screen where you can see Harry wrestling with the TV on the right while Sara peers out through a keyhole on the left, the younger Goldfarb is already yelling at the elder through the locked door: “WHY YOU GOTTA MAKE ME FEEL SO GUILTY, MA???” “This isn’t happening,” Sara whispers. “It’ll all work out…. In the end it’s all nice.” And then the film’s title card literally falls on-screen from above, accompanied by the sound of a huge metal door slamming shut.
Subtle it isn’t. It’s almost playful, the way this prologue explicitly promises the audience an absolutely terrible night at the movies. You could say that Aronofsky plays fair with his audience by warning them here not to get too attached to these people. Or you could say it’s an example of self-aggrandizement, with a director loudly announcing how hard he is, he and his buddy Hubert, and how uncompromising their combined vision of humanity will be. I feel like this sort of macho filmmaking brio came into vogue a couple of years earlier, when Gaspar Noe announced the impending climax of I Stand Alone by displaying a title card reading, “You have 30 seconds to leave the theatre.” But where Noe identified a point of demarcation for a supposed contingent of sensitive viewers, Aronofsky turns the screws gradually over the course of 110 minutes, his editing tempo forever increasing and Clint Mansell’s musical backdrops–think Michael Nyman showing up at a party DJ’d by the Dust Brothers–growing more staccato, more nightmarish, with every cue.
I’m not saying Requiem for a Dream‘s aesthetic is completely gratuitous. Chemical dependency is a miserable affliction, and if Aronofsky’s work here serves as a PSA that helps any one person recover from a destructive vice or stay clean in the face of temptation, then it’s found its reason to exist. And it’s not merely an anti-heroin screed. By giving Sara Goldfarb’s narrative equal weight to Harry’s, Requiem does more than provide a showcase role to an actress who deserves one: It throws a spotlight on a different kind of miserablism, one that’s not so often romanticized by the movies simply because its victims tend to be older women rather than waifish youths. With little but meals and bedtimes breaking up her days and nights, the widowed Sara is a compulsive TV viewer, gravitating particularly to a serial infomercial hosted by smarmy self-help huckster Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald). Sara lives alone, and something about her loneliness, decoded through the Videodrome-esque signal she seems to receive from Tibbons, compromises her rational thinking.
After receiving a phone call from some sort of audience-recruitment firm for TV shows, Sara convinces herself she’s about to be invited on stage by Tibbons himself. (“It’s a reason to smile,” she says. “It makes tomorrow all right.”) Her determination to lose enough weight to wear a favored red dress to the taping leads her to request diet pills from her too-acquiescent doctor. She loses weight, all right, as her addiction to speed bullies out her addiction to food and drives a worsening series of hallucinations. I’m not necessarily a fan of Aronofsky’s visualization of the inside of her head–images of cookies, cupcakes, and donuts falling from the ceiling and her refrigerator becoming sentient feel like rejects from an entirely different kind of movie about fat people–but Burstyn is astonishingly good in the role. Aronofsky told Vulture about shooting the scene where Harry visits Sara in her apartment and is astounded to realize she’s been prescribed a powerful cocktail of stimulants and depressants that has her as strung out as he is; the director says one shot of Burstyn’s performance came back soft because DP Matthew Libatique was crying behind the camera and had fogged the viewfinder so that he couldn’t properly check focus. That kind of performance.
Aronofsky and Selby have claimed that the film is an illustration of different kinds of addiction rather than a scary fable about four junkies’ worst-case scenarios unfolding in parallel–which is precisely the kind of thing you’d say to avoid being called out as the scolds who made the most wildly over-the-top anti-drug propaganda of all time. But it checks out. Aronofsky’s acerbic visuals make an explicit connection between Harry’s illicit drug use and Sara’s social-norm highs. One quick-cut montage progresses pointedly from the familiar dope-film iconography of rolled-up dollar bills, dilating pupils, and tiny plastic packets full of white powder to diet pills, coffee grounds, and a repeated sip from a mug that sets time racing. Requiem for a Dream is also interested in the intersection between addiction and exploitation, showing how Marion is coerced into a downward spiral where she engages in prostitution in exchange for a steady supply of drugs. As she leaves the apartment of one of her sources, Clint Mansell’s mournful, Kronos Quartet-driven music drives her down the hallway and into an elevator to ground level before she vomits on the street. Other characters have their own inflection points that send them downhill. For Harry and Tyrone, it must be their decision to deal drugs, thus profiting off the miseries of others; they realize too late that their souls are in the same jeopardy as those of all the other dopeheads out on the streets.
What bothers me the most about Requiem for a Dream is that it seems so excited about the requiem and so lackadaisical about the dream. An early sequence returns to the split-screen format to show Harry and Marion in bed, murmuring sweet nothings from pillow to pillow. The standard critical rap on a scene like this is that the frames-within-the-frame isolate the characters from one another, showing how each remains an island despite their yearning for some kind of metaphysical connection. Aronofsky and his editor, Jay Rabinowitz (best known at the time for his work on Jim Jarmusch films), however, have a more lyrical touch than that. In some moments, the double-framing actually seems to close the space between them; in others, one image shows fingers touching skin in extreme close-up as one of the lovers appears in profile in the frame beside. Libatique cites the scene’s “cubist feel.” These are beautiful images. He’s a charming loser and she comes off as a poverty tourist, but as long as they cherish that kind of beauty, you can at least understand why they’re together.
It’s by far my favorite scene in a film that could have used more moments of grace instead of shoving past such delicate interludes to reach almost cartoonish story beats. Tyrone, for example, is a very broadly-drawn character. His big scene involves a nude woman cooing, “Come back to bed, baby” as he zones out, imagining himself as a young boy falling into his mother’s arms. The Oedipal connotations are, presumably, deliberate, as is the reference to exploitation films where Black men prove themselves between the sheets as well as in the streets. A vertiginous sex scene, the camera spinning in circles over the bed, seems engineered to highlight Tyrone’s sleek virility and his lady’s bone structure. Wayans’s performance is direct and affecting, though Tyrone is hemmed into an uncomfortably flat role as a jive-talking sidekick. I appreciated the deaf drug dealer who speaks to Tyrone in sign language, but the only other African-American character of note is Keith David’s Big Tim, a sexually voracious pimp who deals in “pussy” rather than money. (“He’s hooked on the thang, man,” Tyrone explains.)
Requiem for a Dream is hardly race-agnostic. Tyrone’s Blackness gives him a presumed role to play in the drug world, where he negotiates on behalf of Harry and Marion, and it becomes a frightening issue when he ends up, inevitably, at the mercy of racist prison guards. Yet the picture’s willingness to deal in racial stereotypes complicates things. Big Tim is written as Black for the sake of sensationalism–it’s clear that Selby believed it gives Marion’s surrender to his sexual demands an extra transgressive charge. (In the book, this is explicit: Selby has Marion chuckle as she thinks about her family’s reaction if they knew she was “making it with a schvartzer.”) David is nonetheless excellent in the role, investing Tim with a truly wicked variety of charm that could make him a likable villain if he weren’t a literal sexual predator. And none of this, by the way, is to suggest that Tyrone isn’t sympathetic. I believe the guy when he insists, “All I want out of life is a little bit of peace and happiness, that’s all.” Tough, because what Requiem for a Dream does best is strip away happiness–it may be the single most punitive film ever made. Though I wouldn’t say it lacks empathy, it’s short on sensitivity. It is ungenerous. Its horror-show flourishes are crass, its sensual excesses vulgar, and its single-minded bleakness marginalizes its characters. They become soulless caricatures, defined by their vices and shoved into corners by the exigencies of the narrative in which they’re trapped.
It boils down to this (spoilers if such things can be spoiled): a drugged-up Sara Goldfarb shows up uninvited in the lobby of Tappy Tibbons’s TV studio, demanding to know when she’s going to be on television. It’s an effective scene because it forces us to see two sides of the confrontation at once. We understand the chain of events–loneliness, depression, addiction–that has led her to the brink, but the office workers see her behavior as a complete non sequitur. Their solution, which is to call in the authorities for help, is inspired by ignorance rather than malice, though it may as well be a death sentence for Sara. At the same time, Tyrone and Harry are being processed for incarceration by sadistic, racist authorities. Eventually, Aronofsky is cutting from the distressing sight of a helpless Sara being prepped for electroconvulsive therapy to a scene of a woman in a dark and crowded room applying lube and a condom to a double-ended dildo she’s about to share in a sex act with a clearly miserable Marion. It’s a viscerally repellent image undergirded by the quick see-saw escalations of Mansell’s slasher-movie parody score and the nasal, chattering roar of a gallery of piggish Patrick Bateman types crying out for their bread and circuses as an old man hisses excitedly, “Ass to ass! Ass to ass!”
The ensuing sexual display is juxtaposed with the image of Tyrone stirring a vat of food in the prison cafeteria while a supervising warden taunts him with lines like, “You’ve got a rotten attitude.” Said Warden is played, for some reason, by Selby himself; when Aronofsky cuts back to a close-up of Marion’s face during her performance, it’s Selby’s contemptuous snarl that we hear as her body jerks and her eyes roll: “That’s it. Nice and easy. Mashed potatoes.” (Connelly later called the experience “draining, sad, and uncomfortable.” Same here.) The visuals are matched in intensity by the audio, with lines of dialogue edited to fall into sadistic rhythm with the jagged musical passages. Thanks to Brian Emrich’s crazily detailed sound montage, Requiem for a Dream would almost work as radio. Meanwhile, we learn that the infected hole near Harry’s elbow where the drugs go in has necessitated the amputation of his entire arm; and so this multifarious tableau of abject degradation climaxes as a bone saw connects with flesh and sprays blood across Harry’s face, a flourish that qualifies Requiem for a Dream quite literally as a splatter movie.
The thing is, the moment doesn’t come as an extension or amplification of the horror but as a relief: Just as we process what we’re seeing, the image fades to white and we realize, somehow, that it’s over. Requiem for a Dream has done its worst, and the credits will roll and we can get on with our day. As well crafted as it is, that long climactic sequence is so aggressive, so intrusive on anybody’s sense of well-being, that I can’t imagine how shocking it must be for an audience that takes it at face value rather than gaping from a safe emotional distance at the sheer belligerence of it all. That’s the thing about Requiem for a Dream–it’s simultaneously so many things at once, and it’s often engaged in a contradiction of itself. It’s an alienating arthouse bummer and a mainstream home-video success. The MPAA ratings board rejected it as too extreme for general release and Ellen Burstyn’s performance earned an Oscar nomination. It’s an extraordinary feat of cinematic craft and it’s a risible glumfest. It would deserve to be laughed off the screen if not for the obvious depth of feeling driving its performances. The movie is grimy and hectoring, vivid and audacious. It’s both narc and hipster, the cool kid and the capital-E Establishment. Anyway, Aronofsky captures an awful lot of exquisitely-imagined pain on film. But I say pain is spectacle, and spectacle is easy. Big screens and Dolby sound systems love pain because they’re built to overwhelm; like too much of our pain, they’re bigger than we are. Less common in the cinema but more precious are genuine expressions of beauty, charity, and hope. All I can really affirm is that, in the end, Requiem has so much to do with pain and so little to do with hope that I sort of regret having watched it a second time.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate, caretaker of the erstwhile Artisan Entertainment catalogue, has brought Requiem for a Dream to UHD BD in time for the film’s 20th anniversary. The film is presented here in its “director’s cut,” meaning it represents the version that went into limited release without a rating after the MPAA threatened it with an NC-17. (Although this cut isn’t any longer than the R-rated alternative, it contains certain offending shots that had to be replaced to get the rating.) The transfer, narrowly letterboxed to the correct 1.85:1, is flat-out gorgeous. It’s not likely to be the sharpest 4K disc on your shelf, but it does appear to have extracted every lick of picture detail from the 35mm camera negative. The image is fairly thick with organic grain and natural color; I’d imagine there might have been a temptation to over-saturate the rich primaries of the film’s palette, but they’re dialled in tastefully and to appropriately film-like levels. Similarly, the Dolby Vision/HDR grade has been executed with restraint. It feels like the presentation often accesses the full dynamic range of the camera negative without allowing the image to pop in ways that were never intended. The new transfer captures Libatique’s painstaking manipulation of color temperature better than ever, and the lighting effects that dominate the film’s climactic sequences, which had an oversized impact on a theatre screen, are intensified by the increased contrast. I hadn’t seen the film since its New York theatrical release and, for what it’s worth, it looks here almost exactly like I remember it.
Requiem for a Dream has also gotten a new Dolby Atmos remix, something I would have expected to find superfluous given the inherent density of the film’s audio. Quite the opposite, this mix has so many elements in it that it convincingly fills the Atmos soundfield. My set-up uses front height speakers (not ceiling speakers), which isn’t an ideal configuration, so I was surprised at how much Requiem for a Dream benefitted from the Atmos treatment. Rather than cluttering up the mix with directional FX (though sounds can be heard circling the room in certain scenes), this track uses sound designer Brian Emrich’s multitude of sonic subtleties to build up atmosphere, generate a strong sense of space, and land the occasional jump-scare. Mansell’s heady score, whose instrumentation sometimes seems to be floating free somewhere above the screen, is treated as the worthy backbone of a smoothly-layered audio mix; one musical cue featured percussive sounds that ping-ponged up and down in the room, massively broadening my front soundstage.
Lionsgate pulled out some stops for this release, shelling out for three new documentary featurettes, all of them presented in native 1080p. “Ellen Burstyn on Requiem for a Dream” (16 mins.) has the actress remembering her extraordinary efforts on the film, such as the two-week period where she lost weight by eating nothing but cabbage soup and the ordeal of removing her prosthetics at the end of each shooting day: “The pain becomes part of the process.” She’s a terrific interview; this one had me Googling “ellen burstyn audio commentary” immediately to see if there might be more like this out there. In “Transcendent Moments: The Score of Requiem for a Dream” (17 mins.), Clint Mansell talks about his relationship with Aronofsky, who got him in the right frame of mind by telling him to think of Requiem for a Dream as a monster movie, which made him decide “Lux Aeterna” would be the monster’s theme. (Mansell insists the funereal motif has “a twinge of hope in it”–the kind of lie you tell yourself if you wrote the most depressing earworm in contemporary cinema, I guess.) He discusses hip-hop and dance music’s influence on his own score (in another life, he led the 1990s band Pop Will Eat Itself) and the process of sampling different sounds from various musical requiems for deployment during the film’s climactic sequence.
And in “Revisiting Requiem for a Dream” (13 mins.), Dr. Bruce Isaacs of the University of Sydney offers a critical appreciation of the film, appraising it as “that bold experiment that suggested a great capacity for [American] independent filmmaking to do something extremely experimental, sophisticated, and challenging.” To which I can only say, wow–it’s almost like the careers of John Cassavetes, David Lynch, and Charles Burnett never existed! Likewise new to this release is an edited collection of B-roll and interview footage dating to the film’s original production and upscaled to 1080p. We get little more than a glimpse of the film’s location shoot on Coney Island, and the tiny snippets from vintage interviews with Aronofsky, Burstyn, Connelly, producer Eric Watson, and Wayans are barely worth a look. (Truth in advertising: Leto says, “I think Requiem is going to be a ride into Hell.”)
The UHD BD additionally recycles material from previous physical releases, such as the audio commentary Aronofsky recorded back in 2000. He delivers a generous, somewhat personal monologue that recalls the golden age of LaserDisc commentaries. His detailed discussion of the film’s 10-minute long scene between Leto and Burstyn, especially the sly way he has Libatique’s camera cross the 180-degree line at one point so that it ends up shooting both characters from the dark sides of their faces, is a highlight. And he helpfully summarizes his take on the material: “Ultimately, Requiem for a Dream is about the lengths people go to escape their reality. And that when you escape your reality, you create a hole in your present, because you’re not there. You’re chasing off a pipe dream in the future. And then you’ll use anything to use that vacuum. So it doesn’t matter if it’s coffee, if it’s tobacco, if it’s TV, if it’s heroin, if it’s ultimately hope. You’ll use anything to fill that hole. And when you feed the hole, just like the hole in Jared’s arm, it will grow and grow and grow until eventually it will devour you.” A parallel commentary from Aronofsky’s longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique is less conversationally engaging but will be catnip for cinematographers and cinematography fans. Discussion of the production’s choice of camera bodies and lenses and his own decisions on lighting and color filtration for individual scenes are dated to some degree, given the quick advance of filmmaking technology, but still shed ample light on his creative process. The overall tone is somewhere between film-school guest lecture and ASC Master Class, so if lines like “We pulled Fuji 500 a full stop for a softer, less contrast-y feel” set your heart a-racin’, this will be an excellent way to spend part of your afternoon.
Since the previous Requiem for a Dream BD comes as a bonus in the same box, purchasers have access to a separate set of standard-definition extras as well. “The Making of ‘Requiem for a Dream'” (35 mins.) offers up a wealth of behind-the-scenes clips from both production and post, including footage of the Kronos Quartet recording the score, with Aronofsky’s descriptive voiceover helping keep the viewer oriented. “Memories Dreams & Addictions” (20 mins.) is a rather philosophical discussion between Burstyn and Selby that begins with the author’s assertion that “36 hours before I was born I started to die.” He explains that, while still in the womb, he experienced brain damage due to cyanosis (that’s when the umbilical cord gets wrapped around the baby’s neck and impairs blood flow to the brain), and the conversation just rolls from there. It reaches a kind of culmination when he admits to being at once “a frustrated teacher” and “a frustrated preacher,” explaining, “I never wanted to just tell a story. I wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience.” Also featured is a clip (1 min.) of Selby on set, reading aloud from his novel to help Burstyn prepare for a scene.
The balance of the platter is given over to deleted scenes, trailers, and TV spots. In the longest clip, running three minutes, Wayans is allowed to improv as the camera rolls and performs in character as Jar-Jar Binks (The Phantom Menace had just come out). Almost as long is an extended take of Selby’s prison guard mocking Tyrone as he mixes mashed potatoes, also running about three minutes and apparently made up of ad-libs. There’s a substantial scene, too, where Harry and Tyrone compare notes on their mothers, followed by a phone call from Harry to Sara, along with a raft of shorter clips that show how Aronofsky and Rabinowitz’s penchant for split-screens could have been taken to greater lengths, splitting the screen into as many as six areas. (In one of the clips, Leto, Connelly, and Wayans appear in a triptych, appearing to glance sheepishly at one another after Marion makes a modest proposal: “Why don’t we stop using?” It made me laugh out loud.) Unused clips from Christopher McDonald’s shot-on-video performance as TV’s Tappy Tibbons (running 5 minutes in total) are also available, in case you can’t get enough of him. Two 90-second trailers and two TV spots (one :30 and one :15) show how Artisan struggled to position the film without making it look like a total downer; three out of four replace the Mansell score with a jangly Moby track. In another blast from the past, the disc features a 90-second trailer for Monster’s Ball, a movie I had forgotten existed. (Well, now I remember. And so do you.)