A few years ago, I used to work the overnight shift in a drug store that ran a methadone-dispensing program. On a daily basis, recovering heroin addicts would come in to the store to receive their dose, which would manage their withdrawal symptoms for 24 hours, thereby allowing them to hold jobs or go to school. As the on-duty pharmacist, it would be my job to measure out the exact dose prescribed by their doctor, dispense it in a half-cup of Tang, and then watch them consume the potent concoction, to ensure that they had properly swallowed the entire dose (so they couldn't spit it out later and exchange it for heroin on the street). While most of my 'patients' were honest, there would be those who would lie, cheat, threaten, and even steal in order to get more methadone, which could be used to get a 'high' at large enough doses, or be sold on the street for cash or drugs of choice.
But what I always found most sobering was to see an 'honest' patient gradually slide down the slippery rope of addiction. One such patient was Jack (not his real name), who was a long-time methadone patient with a wife and two children. Jack had been stable for a number of years, buoyed by a steady job working as a truck driver, and with the help of his doctor, he was gradually whittling down his daily dose, and he was expected to be completely off the program within a year. Unfortunately, Jack hit a rough spot in his life, and subsequently began 'using' again.
Over the period of three months, I saw Jack's life unravel one thread at a time during his daily visits to the store, from the image of self-confidence and control to the complete antithesis. In addition to turning into one of my 'dishonest' patients (such as trying to scam additional methadone by altering the doctor's prescription), his long-time doctor refused to treat him anymore, he lost his job, and finally his family after his wife kicked him out of the house. Eventually, he found himself on the street, and he would come in to the store from time to time to sleep in our waiting area, that is, until the police would send him back outside again. Eventually, he wound up in jail, and that was the last I ever saw or heard of him.
In writer/director Darren Aronofsky's sophomore effort, "Requiem for a Dream", the audience is given a similar experience as they watch the lives of the four protagonists become undone by their various addictions. Like Jack, as their circumstances become more difficult and desperate, they increasingly turn to something that they hope will fill the void in their lives, whether it be heroin, diet pills, food, television, or merely their spurious dreams. Unfortunately, these temporary reprieves quickly become the centers of their lives, until all their energies and efforts are directed to getting the next 'hit', regardless of the personal cost. Told in a brutal and uncompromising manner, "Requiem for a Dream" is probably the one of the most disturbing films about drug addiction and its debilitating effects ever produced, and it easily qualifies among the year's best.
The story tracks the tailspin descent of its main characters through three acts, appropriately named 'Summer', 'Fall', and 'Winter'. At the start of 'Summer', they are already creatures of habit. Unemployed Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto of "Girl, Interrupted") spends his days stealing and scheming for drug money, with the help of his partner in crime Tyrone (Marlon Wayans of "Scary Movie") and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly of "Dark City"), who also share in his addiction. In addition, Harry's widowed mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn of "The Exorcist"), who spends her days locked up in her apartment, suffers from the dual addictions of food and television.
What eventually does them in are their grandiose aspirations, a symptom of their already battered self-esteem. Harry dreams of moving up the food chain by becoming a dealer, which will not only create a sizable nest egg, but will also provide Marion the seed capital to open up her own clothing store. This dream is also shared by Tyrone, who believes that becoming independently wealthy will redeem him in the eyes of his mother. Finally, Marion begins dieting after receiving a phone call informing her that she might appear on a television show, so that she can look great for her 'shining moment' in the public eye.
At first, everything seems to go well for the foursome. Harry and Tyrone's drug dealing business brings in plenty of cash, which becomes reinvested towards bigger and better deals, and also helps Marion's dress-making business get off the ground. And though Sara's initial attempts at dieting end with less than satisfactory results, a visit to a no-questions-asked doctor gives her a prescription of pills that help her fight off her cravings for food. Unfortunately, little do they realize that they each have substituted one addiction for another. As 'Fall' and 'Winter' roll around, their individual addictions end up completely consuming them, and their lives are reduced to little more than a vicious cycle of torment and desperation.
"Requiem for a Dream" is based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby Jr. (who also wrote "Last Exit to Brooklyn"), and in the hands of director Darren Aronofsky, it becomes a cinematic masterpiece that will certainly rattle anyone's complacency about the nature of dependency. Because of the no-holds-barred means in which the story is told, with rampant on-screen drug use and disturbing sexual imagery, "Requiem for a Dream" is rated such that teenagers will be barred from seeing it. This is a shame, since this sort of a 'wake-up call' would probably do a lot more good in terms of deterring teenagers from getting into drugs than anything they could learn in school.
Those of you familiar with Aronofsky's unique visual style from his low-budget debut effort "Pi" will notice that he uses many of the same techniques here, though to much greater effect. To convey the increasingly altered mental state of the protagonists, he employs the same quick-cutting (a normal film contains about 600-700 cuts, whereas this film contains about 2000), extreme close-ups, exaggerated sound effects, and hallucinatory cinematography found in "Pi". However, this time, Aronofsky's production values and creativity are unburdened by budgetary constraints.
For example, the act of taking a 'hit' is condensed into a burst of staccato cut-scenes that show the drugs being measured out, heated up, injected, and the resulting dilation of the user's pupil. The camera then returns to the 'real world' where the user now seems emotionally-shut off from the world. The passage of time during a drug-induced 'high' is also illustrated by speeding up the film-- when the 'high' dissipates, reality for the characters returns to its normally slow and painful crawl. And as the addiction progresses, these 'hits' become faster and more frequent. Meanwhile, another group of sequences illustrate Sara's developing drug-induced psychosis, as she hallucinates her fridge coming to life, or an over-the-top sequence where her apartment transforms into the studio of her favorite television show. While such sequences are initially humorous, they quickly develop a sinister edge that is anything but funny.
As the characters are reduced by their respective addictions, Aronofsky masterfully jumps between each of their fates (in an editing job rivaling last year's "Magnolia") as they fall uncontrollably towards their calamitous destinies. Aronofsky does not spare the audience the gruesome details of what his characters have been reduced to, and the film's final moments are probably the most disturbing, disheartening, and thought-provoking fifteen minutes you will ever see on the screen this year.
More importantly, the themes found in "Requiem for a Dream" do not merely limit themselves to drug addiction. The universality of the film's cautionary tale can be applied to any number of situations-- merely substitute the words 'heroin', 'food', or 'diet pills' with 'career', 'beauty', 'wealth', or even 'love'. After all, what leads to the downfall of the characters in "Requiem for a Dream" is their desire for a 'quick fix' to their deep-seated problems. Unfortunately, they realize too late that no amount of money, attention, or mere avoidance will make such problems go away, and that these stopgap measures only end up exacerbating the situation. Coming out such a film, you have to ask yourself: what are your 'problems', and what 'drugs' are you using to deal with them?
Not everyone gets an opportunity to see first-hand, as I have, how addiction can ravage a person. However, "Requiem for a Dream" comes pretty close, from its opening moments to its unforgettable conclusion. It is the complete antithesis of the 'feel good movie', as it is a bleak, uncompromising, yet thought-provoking exploration of human weakness. It is also a powerful piece of filmmaking, a coup for sophomore director Darren Aronofsky, and probably one of the best films of the year.