Looking for THE example for when the topic of "Great movie that you don't wish to watch more than once" comes up? Look no further than Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky's brilliant, soul-sucking 2000 film about...well, I'll let Less Than Three Film's Liam take it from here.
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There's a misconception surrounding this movie that it is about drugs, in the same vein as 'Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996)'. While drugs are an integral element, director Darren Aronofsky tackles something far scarier than drugs here, something which gets under the skin much easier than any needle, and refuses to leave. The frailty of the human mind is on full display here, raw and in the open, with the uncomfortable truth that we are all imperfect and susceptible and on our own paths to self-destruction. This will not end well.
'Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000)' introduces us to four characters, at moments in their lives where they're on a downward spiral, but have not yet descended far enough for redemption to be completely out of reach. Hope remains.
We meet Harry and Sara Goldfarb. Harry is addicted to heroin (although the word heroin is not once uttered throughout this entire movie) and is stealing his mother's television set to sell to a pawn shop. His mother, Sara, is a lonely widowed housewife, whose main connection to the outside world is through her television set and the gameshows that promise that fleeting moment of recognition. Harry's stealing of his mother's possesions is, we gather, a regular occurence, for she soon buys her television back from the pawn shop.
Harry has comfortably surrounded himself with two other heroin addicts, his girlfriend Marion and his best friend Tyrone. In order to make things right, and get out of the unhappy existence they've made for themselves where they are penniless and constantly looking for the next score, they enter the drug trade. At this point, each character has hopes and ambitions.
Harry wishes to make enough money to help Marion open her own fashion store. Tyrone wants to break free from the streets and make his mother proud. After a junk phone call with the promise of appearing on television, Sara wishes to lose some weight and fit into the red dress she wore for Harry's graduation - her proudest moment. None of these are particularly lofty ambitions, and each are achievable. Until drugs get involved.
Already addicted to heroin, it doesn't take long for Harry and Tyrone's mini-empire within the drug trade to crumble and collapse before them when Tyrone is arrested after witnessing a murder. Marion turns to prostitution in order to earn some money to help them out of their rut, putting considerable strains on her relationship. Meanwhile, Sara starts taking diet pills - a quick fix to slim down fast.
Without the inclusion of Sara's story, this could easily be viewed as a damning indictment of the evils of heroin and the drug business. Yet, what is most interesting is how the mindset of the characters runs parallel. They delude themselves into believing drugs are the answer, and all they need is one lucky break, just one shot to present itself, and they'll pull themselves out of their mess.
And it is here where the movie raises itself above being a film about drugs, and instead becomes about addiction and the mentality behind it. Aronofsky expertly wields the camera, using cunning techniques to alienate each of the characters. Tight close-ups get us feeling the loneliness, paranoia and fear they find themselves in, while long distance time-lapsed shots reveal their alienation.
It is Sara whose tale is perhaps most touching. It's easy to see how someone of an elderly age, alone and vulnerable, can be tricked - and with no-one to look out for her, she soon loses her mind, ending up in a mental institution. She is so fixated on looking her best, recapturing her youth, having her moment on the screen, that she doesn't even notice the state in which she becomes.
Marion finds the path of prostitution can quickly descend into humiliation and degradation. It's stomach-churning cinema, as suited businessmen leer at two girls forced to take part in explicit sex acts before them, jovially throwing wads of cash at the women. Her transformation from cute nubile girlfriend to tarted up whore is particularly difficult to witness.
Harry and Tyrone abandon the streets of New York and road trip to Florida, hoping to score and re-enter the drug trade business. From mis-use of needles, Harry's arm has turned gangrenous, with the infection rapidly spreading. A trip to the hospital soon sees Tyrone arrested for skipping bail, and Harry having his arm amputated.
While the power of drugs is never romanticised, and Aronofsky puts more time into portraying life between the highs, we are offered brief glimpses of the world Harry finds himself in when he's on heroin. A window opens before him, and for the briefest of moments, the world seems perfect. Even in his bleakest of moments, Harry still futilely clings onto the perfect world that he believes the drugs offer him, only to find all too late that it's a world that has been deceiving him.
It's difficult to glean sympathy for characters that are drug-addicts, stuck in a rut of their own accord, but Aronofsky manages by making them relatable via their hopes and dreams. Like all of us, they have aspirations, and they want to better themselves. But they find themselves struggling with addiction - as we all do in our own different ways.
Quite cruelly, Aronofsky offers that glimpse of redemption, and then snatches it away, standing back and observing each of the characters as they continue to fall. They're never saints to begin with, and it's not a fall from grace - more importantly, they're human.
The acting throughout is outstanding. Jared Leto (Harry) believably goes through various stages of withdrawal and grim determination. His exchanges with Jennifer Connelly (Marion) never feel forced, and the decisions they make together as a couple seem almost understandable. Jennifer Connelly's portrayal as Marion is perhaps most daring, at times reverting to a little girl lost in a danger-filled terrifying world. Comedian Marlon Wayans is most unrecognisable here, effortlessly shrugging off any preconceptions anybody may have after seeing him in stinkers like 'White Chicks (Wayans, 2004)' and crafting a highly surprising, utterly convincing character.
Ellen Burstyn (Sara) undergoes quite a transformation of her own, as she sheds weight and becomes scantly recognisable from the homely woman we're first introduced to. She portrays the deterioration of her mental health excellently in a truly stellar performance.
We all encounter addictions and addicts on a daily basis, under different guises, and we all struggle with our own demons. 'Requiem for a Dream' is a chilling warning to the consequences of succumbing. It's a gruelling movie with a brutally bleak outlook, and it is difficult to truly enjoy. But it is easy to appreciate as masterful cinema, and anyone brave enough to tackle serious topics and themes on screen will not find themselves disappointed.
Tomorrow: Alex takes a trip to Italy with The Talented Mr. Ripley.