Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream may be one of the most disturbing movies ever made, yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off of it, and it takes a few hours of restful silence after it ends before you can recuperate and get yourself back together. The majority of reviewers characterized Requiem for a Dream in the genre of “drug movies” and argues that the film depicts different forms of addiction, leading to the characters’ imprisonment in a world of delusion and reckless desperation that is subsequently overtaken by reality (Ebert). However, Aronofsky has said in an interview with Salon.com, “Requiem for a Dream is not about heroin or about drugs… The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, what is a drug?’” (Aronofsky).
Requiem for a Dream is more than tales of addiction and the horrors they engender. They are studies of the human condition and of individual and group delusions of grandeur, the obsessions such delusions create, the extremes to which human beings will go to fulfill such delusions, and the depths to which they plunge when harsh reality shatters fantasy.
The customary approach has been to treat Requiem for a Dream as a film about addiction, but to do so is to turn a film with a deeper insight to the human psyche as just another piece of Hollywood simplification. Drugs and addiction simply act as a plot device to move the story line. While it is common to place addiction and obsession hand in hand, you must first define what each means.
Addiction is concrete and requires something of substance. It can be drugs, alcohol, television, etc. In its simplest theory, remove the substance, remove the addiction, but an obsession lies deep within the human psyche. An obsession is ultimately intangible; a persistent preoccupation, thought, idea or feeling that persistently recurs despite attempts to resist it. What this film does is show that uncontrolled obsession leads to a harsh reality.
Aronofsky introduces a controlling metaphor in the first scene of the move that lays the foundational theme of the move. Every character is trapped. In the first scene Sara runs to her closet and locks herself in as Harry steals her television again. The metaphor is introduced, when Harry runs to the closet to plead with his mother and we see a split screen – one of Harry outside and one of Sara inside. Another example is the Marian – Harry sex scene. What both scenes are communicating is even though these characters are in close proximity to each other, as individuals, they could not be farther apart. This metaphor is used multiple times throughout the film, whether it is the use of a split screen, or the use of a steady-cam each character is trapped within themselves.
After a vague phone call Sara learns she has been “selected” to be on television, and her obsession begins. Sara soon becomes obsessed with the idea of being on television and everyone seeing her. She loses weight via diet pills, goes outside to get sun, and dyes her hair. When Harry comes to visit he notices her grinding her teeth due to the diet pills, and here we see the depth of Sara’s obsession, and when confronted by Harry her demeanor changes. She looks to the side and says in a pitiful voice, “It’s a reason to get up in the morning, it’s a reason to lose weight, it’s a reason to fit in the red dress” (Burstyn, Leto and Connelly). This scene, on the surface, may seem to be about drug dependency, but in fact it is more about obsessions of the mind, lonely, and hungry hearts.
On surface level, Harry is an addict, but the sequences we see of his girlfriend and him reveal that Harry is completely infatuated with Marian. While his friend Tye is out scoring a pound of pure, he stands across from a window, and imagines seeing Marian, standing out on the pier. Throughout the film we see Harry doing all that he can for Marian, pushing her to start designing again and opening her own store, letting her get the last score they have just to make her happy. Even at the end, when all hope is lost, all he can do is think about Marian.
Marian on the contrary has an unhealthy obsession of her self-image. We see Marian in her moment of weakness, as she stands in front of the mirror staring at herself, with a look of disgust as she judges herself. In a later scene with Harry and Marian lying together we hear her open up, and say to Harry “You make me feel beautiful” (Burstyn, Leto and Connelly). This is another scene of pure true emotion, where she lets down her guard, and we see her true feelings.
Tye’s obsession lies in his desire to become something more. In a flashback, we see a young Tye run up to his mother, jump into her arms and tell her “I told you mom, one day, I’ll make it” (Burstyn, Leto and Connelly). In the first half of the movie, Tye is becoming an up and coming dealer and is in fact making a name for himself. It is this drive to become something so much more than just a junkie that invades his thoughts.
The structural movement of the film concentrates on the widening split between illusion and reality. It builds upward very quickly to a pinnacle of hope as the fantasy expectations of all the characters soar, and then spirals downward as hopes die, relationships fall apart, and dreams turn into nightmares. The dreams of the characters take shape in Technicolor visions of a fame from a television debut, a love relationship, a clothing shop, and a movement up the economic scale. However, each dreamer faces the question of how far to go to sustain the dream of wealth, success, and fame.
Their foolishly exaggerated dreams lead to nightmare consequences: Tye accommodates to the horror of working on a southern chain gang; Harry gives up his dream of love and encourages his girlfriend to prostitute herself for dope; Marian finds herself in a downward spiral of degradation, prostituting herself first to one drug dealer but ending up servicing all of his associates; and Harry’s mother becomes quickly addicted to diet pills, loses touch with reality and slowly starves herself. She begins to imagine her refrigerator is threating her with cries of “feed me” which leads to a break down, and ends up landing in a mental hospital ward.
In what is a stunningly beautiful ending Aronofsky gives us an insight of each character trapped inside their obsession. We see each character lying down, playing their obsession in their head with a look of desperation, and we see that all hope is lost. These shots play into the prevailing metaphor of being trapped in that, much like Martin Scorsese’s character Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, all we see is them lying there isolated from everyone.
Requiem for a Dream is more than tales of addiction and the horrors they engender. The story is the requiem for its doomed characters, but despite the difference of each obsession, referring them collectively connects them to the main umbrella obsession: the great American dream, a dream that consumes and pushes us to the extremes to fulfill them. This obsession is materialism, which has become more than a god; it has become an obsession we cannot set aside.
Aronofsky, Darren. It’s a Punk Movie Jeff Stark. 13 October 2000.
Damiaan A. Denys, et al. “Obsessions in Normality and Psychopathology.” Depression and Anxiety (2011): 870-875.
Ebert, Roger. rogerebert.com. 3 November 2000. 3 November 2012.
McDonald, Andrew and Gina. “Hugh Selby’s Requiem for a Dream.” Creative Screenwriting (2000): 31-34.
Requiem for a Dream. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Perf. Ellen Burstyn, et al. 2000. DVD.