20 years after the release of Requiem For A Dream, it’s easy to understate the impact it had on cinema. Darren Aronofsky‘s relentlessly bleak film topped so many lists of “The Best Films of the 2000s” and established Aronofsky as one of the most exciting directors of his generation.
Following four characters, each chasing their own addictions in the pursuit of happiness, the film explores different kinds of addiction, and the depths to which people will go to sate their hunger. There’s Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) a heroin addict, who seeks a better life for him and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) while his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) becomes addicted to diet pills when she thinks she might appear on a daytime TV show.
The plot might be thin, but the characterisation and performances are all excellent. Ellen Burstyn is virtually unrecognisable as a desperately sad, poignant character, and it’s frankly insane that she didn’t win an Oscar for this performance. Her speech about how lonely she is is (pretty much all shot in one take) is utterly heartbreaking, and her deterioration is traumatising to watch.
Leto and Connelly portray such a perfect embodiment of fresh-faced young love that it’s genuinely devastating to see them completely wreck their lives over the course of the film. Connelly is brilliant conveying an awful lot of internal agony without even really changing her expression too much. Leto is also great, and surprisingly grounded as Harry. This is when he was still an actor, rather than a superstar and he gives an incredibly natural, sympathetic performance. The dreamlike sequence where Harry sees Marion standing at the end of a pier is one of the films most enduring images, and it proves especially soul destroying by the end.
Aronofsky really uses every trick at his disposal here. The film’s style changes depending on the tone; there is some beautifully measured scene composition early on, but as the film goes on, the style becomes more freewheeling, with handheld shots, quick cuts and whip pans to reflect the characters’ state of mind. Aronofsky also ups the intensity of the film by increasing the rate at which he cuts between subplots. At the start everything unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace, but by the end it rapidly cuts between characters, and there are much more close ups, adding to the feeling of despair and claustrophobia as they reach their lowest point.
The final sequence is honestly more reminiscent of a horror film than a drama. The distorted audio, jarring score and some truly disturbing imagery contribute to the feeling of a waking nightmare, while Leto’s storyline takes a grisly turn into body horror. It’s a film that is both ahead of, and a product of its time. As such, while the innovative editing techniques were cutting edge in 2000 (and still admittedly pack an emotional punch) it can’t help but feel a little dated in places. The irony is that the reason these techniques feel so overused now is largely due to the influence of directors like Aronofsky.
Clint Mansell’s seminal score helps immeasurably, fitting the continually shifting tone of the film perfectly, especially the piece Lux Aeterna which serves as a recurring leitmotif throughout the film. This piece in particular seems overused nowadays, but only because it has been used in trailers for numerous blockbusters, from Sunshine to The Lord Of The Rings.
The quintessential feel-bad movie, Requiem For A Dream is not a film that necessarily warrants repeat viewings, yet is one that everyone should see. If you haven’t yet, this release is the best way to view the film, as it’s the most beautiful it has ever looked. A vital, provocative piece of filmmaking that sears itself into your memory.
An on-set featurette from 1999; Transcendent Moments: The Score of Requiem for a Dream; Ellen Burstyn on Requiem for a Dream through their eyes: Revisiting Requiem for a Dream.