The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we are taking a look at the short, recent, yet incredibly distinctive list of films from Darren Aronofsky.
There’s understandably a lot of pressure when your first feature film hits it big at the Sundance film festival and with critics. Sometimes, the sophomore effort can make or break a filmmaker. Will you make a Boogie Nights and move on to a bright future? Or will you make a Southland Tales and have much of the good will of your previous film get sapped away at an instant? (And I liked Southland Tales). In the case of Darren Aronofsky, whose Pi was a bold debut feature, it wasn’t surprising when his second feature film turned out to be darker, grittier, and more intense than the last. So intense, in fact, that it makes the already hyper-kinetic Pi look like a tame student film by comparison.
With today’s installment of The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective, we’re going to take a look at one of the most infamously uncomfortable, hard-to-watch films ever made, Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Unlike the last retrospective installment, there will be major spoilers concerning the specifics of the characters’ fates. So only read if you’ve already seen the film or just don’t have the stomach to watch it. With that being said, let’s dive right into the notoriously bleak Requiem for a Dream.
“It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right […] I like the way I feel. I like thinking about the red dress and the television and you and your father. Now when I get the sun, I smile.“
Requiem for a Dream is a film so relentlessly grim that its reputation is largely built upon its hopelessness. Sitting atop numerous lists the most “depressing” or “hard-to-watch” movies of all time, the film follows four individuals as they are each plunged to the nadir of their own physical hellscapes thanks to drug addiction.
This is one of those rare films that is able to induce physical pain and discomfort on the viewer. Seeing each of these four people descend further into the absolute worst places imaginable is difficult to endure, and what makes it so is the relentless, almost punishing filmmaking from Darren Aronofsky, who so clearly brings us into the minds of these addicts that we cannot help but sit there absolutely horrified at what’s become of each character. In that sense, Requiem for a Dream is actually more unnerving and horrifying than most actual horror films.
However, because Aronofsky’s direction is just that masterful, many people tend to ignore this basic fact: Requiem for a Dream is essentially a feature-length drug PSA. That’s not a criticism or an endorsement; just an observation This isn’t a film like Oslo, August 31st, which looks at addiction through a totally objective (albeit, still grim) lens, nor is it like Trainspotting, a film that sees both points of view for how drugs both lighten and darken the lives of its characters. Requiem for a Dream, by comparison, is so clearly, vehemently against drugs and the addictions they bring, that it can easily be seen as a glorified after-school special. In some ways, it bears all the familiar elements of an anti-drug video, but to dismiss it as such is to ignore Aronosky’s virtuoso control of the camera and the characters he’s created.
Drug addicts are very often portrayed in a negative light in a majority of films, and Requiem is no different. The trio of friends played by Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and (the oddly cast) Marlon Wayans are impossible to sympathize with at first glance. The first scene shows Leto stealing his mother’s television set so he could sell it for money at a pawn shop. This is apparently a normal occurrence since his mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, has foreseen this and chained the television to the radiator. It’s no use, of course, and Leto ends up dragging the TV to the pawn shop owner (played by the great Mark Margolis, no less).
This scene is followed by more scenes of Leto and his friends goofing around, with Aronofsky knowing full-well that these characters are hate-able at first glance. One scene, in which Leto fantasizes stealing a police officer’s handgun and teasing him with it, especially seems to highlight this notion. So what exactly is it that allows us to deeply sympathize with their downfalls by the time the credits roll? This can be attributed to three different reasons, each of which Aronofsky is directly responsible for.
First, each of the trio has just enough time to develop. Within the first half hour, Aronofsky establishes their wants and desires outside their drug addictions. Second, much like his last film, Pi, Aronofsky completely submerges us into each of their mindsets by using just about every technique he possibly can in his arsenal. Split-screens create a fabricated closeness to characters who are, in actuality, as alone as they can be. Cameras are attached to characters during scenes of intensity, the camera shaking right as they are. Wide angle lenses increase the claustrophobia of Burstyn’s scenes in her apartment, which play out like a more heightened, kinetic version of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but with monster-refrigerators instead of arms popping out of the walls.
Most important are the quick-cuts Aronofsky employs when the characters use, be it heroin, cocaine, or pills. Coined by Aronofsky as the “hip-hop montage”, each of the steps of the using process are quickly cut together with a specific sound effect representing each cut (This technique was used so much in action films that it was parodied by Edgar Wright in Hot Fuzz). This technique not only gets us as used to the pattern of drug addiction as the characters are, but also highlights just how quick and fleeting the euphoria of drug addiction is. The moments of bliss under drug addiction are so brief compared to the moments of despair that it becomes this unattainable force, the desire of which ends up consuming the characters whole.
The third and most important thing that Aronofsky utilizes to sympathize with these characters is Ellen Burstyn.
Ellen Burstyn’s performance as Mrs. Goldfarb may very well be the key to Requiem for a Dream‘s success. Playing Leto’s mother–who is addicted not to heroin or cocaine, but to self-help television and, later, diet pills–she provides the heart this film so desperately needs. Whereas the other characters are introduced as addicts from the opening frame, Burstyn shows us the transformation process, depicting just how easy it is for a seemingly normal human being to succumb to addiction. Because she provides a relatable center compared to the rest of the cast, we end up sympathizing not just with her, but with the younger characters as well. We see first hand that these people weren’t always addicts and had dreams and aspirations just like this woman.
Burstyn’s performance here is something to behold. Like Aronofsky himself, she’s standing at the highest point of the cinematic mountain, teetering right on the edge between genius and self-parody, and balancing effortlessly the whole way through. She is genuinely heartbreaking, and the downward spiral she takes is what makes the rest of the film work.
Her performance also represents one of Aronofsky’s biggest strengths: his gift of directing actors to their highest potential. With each of his lead performances, he manages to create a career-best. Natalie Portman won an Oscar for Black Swan, and Mickey Rourke’s career was revived after The Wrestler. Aronofsky even managed to get a subtly wonderful performance out of Marlon Wayans, of all people. I can never quite decide whether Burstyn or Portman is the best performance in an Aronofsky film, but I tend to lean a tiny bit more towards Burstyn since Portman is (intentionally) more stagey and theatrical in Black Swan. Burstyn is a triumph in this film, and I wonder whether the whole thing would’ve worked without her.
What’s more, Aronofsky continues his tradition of submerging the audience almost entirely into the characters’ mindsets with incredible force and veracity. The aforementioned usage of queasy cameras and split-screens, plus the typical hallucinations and Aronofsky’s almost signature fade to white certainly factor into this. But with each bombastic technique, some more subtle ones play into the madness. The quick-cut montages employed whenever characters get their fixes are also used for more mundane rituals, such as whenever Burstyn grabs the remote to turn on her TV or washes the dishes. Going back to Burstyn, her transformation is visually symbolized through her ever-changing hair color, which goes from blonde, to red, and finally to dead gray. Even the way she opens a box of chocolates and rubs her fingers along them looks like an omen of the pill addiction to come.
My personal favorite little detail that’s employed in the film is a dream sequence that’s shown twice, with Leto on a sunny pier running towards an ethereal Jennifer Connelly wearing a red dress. The red dress looks almost exactly like the one Burstyn is trying to fit into with her diet pills, further connecting both the characters and their obsessions into one, unifying whole.
Speaking of obsessions, it’s always interesting to note that while the concept of “obsession” is the main theme of every one of Aronofsky’s pictures, each film deals with a different kind of obsession. Pi dealt with the direct obsession of numbers and patterns. Requiem for a Dream, meanwhile, deals with “visceral” obsession, and there is no hunger that is more powerful than a person going through drug withdrawal.
This main, visceral obsession is undercut with individual obsessions for each of the characters. The red dress for Burstyn that represents approval from others, the promise of a successful life for Leto, the loving comfort of a maternal figure for Wayans, and a life free from the control of rich parents for Connelly. Drugs are depicted in this film as more than just a fix: they end up defining a false escape into those fantasies and desires. It understands how the psychological effects of drugs work on the subconscious, how humans associate the high with the dream, and then finally proceeds to show how it tears the dream down.
The final 20 to 30 minutes of Requiem for a Dream are some of the most stomach-churning ever put to film. Inter-cutting each of the four characters’ individual descents in grand, virtuosic fashion, Aronofsky switches back and forth from one grim scenario to another, each character’s situation worsening as the montage progresses. Providing the connective tissue is Clint Mansell’s marvelously unsettling score, which unifies their pain into a symphony of misery. A demeaning orgy scene is shown alongside Burstyn’s electroshock therapy, Wayans is forced into prison labor as Leto’s infected arm worsens. Each segment is timed almost perfectly to appear at the right moment of maximum effect, with each acquiring their own “movement” of Mansell’s score. As the cutting gets quicker, the score’s movements blur together until all their sufferings have become one.
Aronofsky has always been a master of cutting between different planes of location, time, or reality, and the final moments of Requiem for a Dream may very well be his greatest achievement as a director, bringing together the right editing, camerawork, and music for each segment of the montage, creating an explosion of filmmaking prowess and emotional devastation. It’s so masterfully done, it makes the similarly edited sequences in Cloud Atlas seem facile by comparison.
The film ends with the soul-crushing final montage set to Mansell’s now infamous (and ubiquitous) “Lux Aeterna” theme, as each of the characters roll up into a fetal position and think of the dreams that their addictions have just destroyed. Mercifully, the final scene is one of those dreams, that of Burstyn wearing the red dress on television, and her son being there to comfort her. They embrace as their demise is applauded by a large, live audience–an image that perfectly represents the heightened melodrama of the film, and one that Aronofsky will employ again in two of his future films. In that moment, the dream has been reached, their obsession has paid off, and just like the euphoria of the pills and the heroin, it’s gone in an instant.
Requiem for a Dream may have the moral complexity of those drug PSAs and after-school specials, but it ends up being so much more than just that. Under Aronofsky’s direction, what could’ve been trite and obvious becomes truly affecting on a purely visceral, emotional level. It’s cinema manipulation at its most masterful, style at some of its most original, and despair at its most miserably bleak. It’s as uncompromising a work of art as you can ever view.
However, it also gave Aronofsky something of a problem. The movie made its budget back and then some, but there was a large ratings controversy regarding the graphic sexual and drug content of the film. They were thankfully able to release the film unrated in theaters, with an edited down, R-rated version for DVD. But once the film was out, numerous viewers walked out of the film believing it was a pro-drug movie, unaware of what was in store for the final half. Due to this, there were a few parties that not only found the film offensive, but wanted it banned. It never got around to that, but it was still a thorn on the film’s side.
Thankfully, there was a silver lining. He garnered enough attention from both the controversy and the effectiveness of his two independent feature films to make his Hollywood splash and make a big-budget epic spanning thousands of years. At least… that was how it was supposed to go before things got even more sour for him. Stay tuned for an analysis of Aronofsky’s most misunderstood film, The Fountain.