Classic Movie Review: 'Requiem for a Dream'

Aronofsky's Obsession with Obsession

With Darren Aronofsky's latest film Mother starring Jennifer Lawrence arriving in theaters across the country this week, now is the perfect time to look back on the best of Aronofsky's career thus far. You can hear more about Mother and the style of Darren Aronofsky on the next "Everyone Is a Critic Movie Review Podcast" available on iTunes every Monday Morning. 

Darren Aronofsky is driven by an obsession with obsession. His characters are those that are driven past the brink of madness by their obsessions. The math in Pi, the drugs in Requiem for a Dream, love and immortality in The Fountain, to be the best in Black Swan, Piety and to build a boat in Noah, Aronofsky’s characters are obsessives who risk everything for their goals no matter how dangerous or wrong-headed those goals may be.

In Requiem for a Dream obsession is the underlying element of addiction. Addiction drives those obsessed with their ideas of what they believe will make them happy. For Harry (Jared Leto), what he believes will make him happy is settling down with Marion (Jennifer Connelly), opening a business, maybe starting a family all the while continuing to shoot heroin. His obsession is the goal of being happy while also remaining on heroin; a poignantly sad goal he doesn’t realize is entirely at odds.

Marion meanwhile, shares some of Harry’s obsession with happiness but is far more defined by her desire to be different from her rich parents. Throughout the film, Marion makes only minor references to her parents but each is a revelation about her character. Early on, Marion mentions that money is not what she wants from her parents but rather for them to show concern for her that doesn’t involve finance. As she goes deeper into her addiction however, it becomes clear that her parents’ inattention isn’t as much the problem as is her desire to be different from them, that which drives her further toward degradation and addiction.

Harry’s best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is obsessed with finding some way back into the light of his mother’s gaze. We are never told specifically that Tyrone’s mother is dead but the clues are there as she is never seen outside of his dreams or hallucinations. Tyrone’s mother is portrayed as angelic and understanding, she tells Tyrone that he could never disappoint her and he basks in the glow of her warmth as a child in his imagination while painfully longing for that warmth as an adult and only seems to find a similar kind of comfort in heroin.

Then, sadly, there is Harry’s mom Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a heartbreaking character obsessed by a past that was likely not as happy as she remembers it. When Sara wins a random contest to appear on television she decides she wants to wear her favorite red dress, the one she wore to her son Harry’s graduation. Unfortunately, the dress is too small for her these days so she tries a crash diet that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Driven by her obsession with the past, her late husband, and the man she thought her son might be able to become, Sara quickly drives herself to madness and Ellen Burstyn is heartbreaking in her rendering of this sad, desperate, obsession.

Aronofsky’s rendering of obsession is as riveting as his characters. The use of god’s eye perspective, fish eye lens and handheld camera shots give Requiem for a Dream a hallucinatory, other-worldly quality. Strangely, I felt as I watched Requiem for a Dream like one of the observing angels in Wim Wenders Wings of Desire, forced to watch the world play out before us, unable to stop the characters from harming themselves. We can only watch these children of God waste their gift, their life and as the film spins toward it’s devastating and degrading finale we don’t feel part of it but we can’t help but be oh so terribly moved by it, especially the notion that soon these characters’ pain may end though not in the way they were hoping it would.

The film ends with each of the characters, Harry, Marion, Tyrone and Sara on the brink of death by their own actions. Harry has lost an arm and may soon lose his life to his addiction. Marion degraded herself and seems more than prepared in her final moments on screen to finish herself off with that final, garish amount of ill-gotten heroin. Tyrone seems ready to go into the afterlife in search of his mother and away from the pain of drying out and Sara, poor Sara, is nearly lobotomized by the electro-shock therapy she undergoes to overcome her diet pill addiction. She appears to no longer be in pain but her death seems inevitable if only for the lack of something further to live for.

Requiem for a Dream is a remarkably sad movie about remarkably sad people. Driven by their obsession passed the point of rationality, the characters of Requiem for Dream careen toward the certainty and seeming comfort of death whether they realize that is their path is unknown and quite poignant. It’s impossible not to feel deeply for the characters even as we don’t necessarily identify with their kind of pain. I’ve never been addicted to heroin or really anything similar so I can’t quite understand it the same way a user might but I can feel for those who do feel that pain, who have lived that obsession and Requiem for a Dream is remarkable in rendering that pain in such painfully realistic and very sad fashion. 

Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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Classic Movie Review: 'Requiem for a Dream'