Requiem for a Dream at 20: Aronofsky's nightmare still haunts

The auteur’s bold and brutal 2000 adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s cultish novel about addiction remains an indelible and shocking act of provocation

I was 17, and just beginning university, when Requiem for a Dream descended on cinemas like an opaque, bruise-blue mist. Notwithstanding the no-under-18s restrictions stamped upon it by stern censors in the UK and elsewhere, I like to think I was the optimal age for it. Darren Aronofsky’s addiction drama may be cross-generational in its focus, but with its unremittingly punishing storytelling and frenzied, all-systems-go cinematic energy, it represents a very young person’s idea of how a very adult film looks, sounds and spasms. I loved it, even as it followed me through a tertiary arts education to the point of overkill: its poster gracing umpteen friends’ dorm rooms, its Clint Mansell/Kronos Quartet string theme – and its countless remixes – soundtracking all manner of student theatre pieces and presentations, its formal and literary flourishes seized upon by many a hip professor seeking a modish mutual reference point.

If this sounds like the prelude to a revisionist takedown, I thought it might be one too. It’s 20 years since Requiem for a Dream was released, and at least 15 since I last saw it: revisiting it this week, I was prepared for it to be as dated and artificially edgy as a turn-of-the-millennium tribal tattoo. In a sense it is. There’s no mistaking Aronofsky’s film as a highly styled product of its era, its hopped-up editing schemes and plethora of lens choices and gimmicks a glossy refinement of 90s indie aesthetics and Tarantino-patented extremity. It doesn’t miss a trick, and doesn’t want us to miss any of its tricks either. Some critics called it over-directed at the time, and more of their colleagues would probably join them today; a generation of more restrained kids as old as I was then, quieter rather than shock-inclined in their anxiety, might even agree.

And yet. Certainly, a large part of Requiem’s stylistic mania amounts to auteurist showing-off. It was Aronofsky’s second film, coming two years after his scrappier, more cryptic but equally out-to-dazzle Sundance sensation Pi, and with more money and bigger names at his disposal, he set out to prove himself as the pre-eminent artist-provocateur of his indie class. Still, in choosing to adapt Hubert Selby Jr’s cultish 1978 novel of New York junkie miserablism – and very faithfully, at that – the then 31-year-old film-maker found about the ideal canvas for his ugly showmanship.

The novel was grimly forensic in detailing the physical and mental destruction wrought by drug addiction on a quartet of characters: three of them connected in their youth and knowing submission to heroin, and the fourth an elderly Brooklyn widow, drawn obliviously into amphetamine psychosis by solitude, TV fixation and irresponsibly prescribed diet pills. It’s a slender story that makes its essential points early, often and obviously: we’re all vulnerable to some manner of addiction, and legal ones aren’t necessarily safer or less ruinous than their underworld counterparts.

Scripted in collaboration with the author, Aronofsky’s interpretation doesn’t complicate things any, but it does bring to the material an electrified sensory charge that hasn’t quite been replicated in any other addiction drama. In all its flash, slam-bang technique, it vividly evokes the sensation of what drugs actually do to your system, briefly for better and mostly for worse, from twitchy initial rush through to comedown and tortured aftermath.

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream.
Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Aritsan Entertainment/Allstar/Cinetext/Artisan Entertainment

Aronofsky’s film-making is neither subtle nor tasteful, two words you wouldn’t tend to apply to heroin addiction either. Its excesses feel grounded, however oppressively, in the hellish experience of all its characters – it’s surely the most stylishly made drug drama ever to escape any accusations of glamorising the scene. As two young, beautiful, kohl-eyed lovers bound by needles and deferred dreams, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly initially seem veritable poster children for that quintessentially 90s concept of heroin chic. By the time the film reaches its notoriously grotesque, despairing climactic montage, crosscutting between the amputation of his gangrenous arm – a body-horror image more unforgettably gross than any cursed cigarette-pack photo – and her going ass-to-ass with another woman for a braying, paying audience, any concept of “chic” is firmly off the table.

Such is the paradox of Requiem for a Dream, which pushed the envelope in its explicit, from-the-inside view of addiction and its spiralling consequences, while maintaining a philosophical perspective as cautiously moralising as any Just Say No public service announcement. What real shock value it had was tied mostly to Ellen Burstyn’s indelible, progressively unhinged performance as frail, sweet-natured shut-in Sara Goldfarb, whose short-term chemical solution to her loneliness and body-image issues winds up frying her brain as drastically as any class-A drug. Burstyn’s fearless turn hooked this impressively abrasive film an Oscar nomination it would never have received in any other category – and with it, an older audience that probably wouldn’t have considered seeing a film about three young, damned smackheads. It probably surprised them as much as it did any student-age punters drawn in by the vogueish, subversion-promising marketing: “the cinematic heroin nightmare for the whole family” wasn’t anywhere to be seen on that ubiquitous poster, but it wouldn’t have been far off.

Two decades on, Requiem for a Dream doesn’t look especially cool – but then, it never really did. Rather, its numbing, slightly-sick-in-your-mouth power remains undiminished, as does the hard-driving impact of Aronofsky’s film-making: it set the pace for a filmography marked by earnest, grandiose outrageousness, from the ludicrous, ravishing romantic folly of The Fountain through to the magnificent, unapologetically narcissistic artist’s self-diagnosis of his recent Mother!. As someone born closer to the year 2000 than I was might say, Requiem for a Dream didn’t have to go so hard. But I’m kind of glad it did.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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