Film review: Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, arguably among the most talented new directors of the last 10-15 years. Most of his characters, are to one degree or another driven by obsession and addiction. All of his films are about people whose tunnel vision, whose single-minded pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal, prevents them from experiencing the wider and potentially richer life beyond their narrow perspective. In pursuing their personal visions of the ultimate goal, the characters can paradoxically miss out on both the small details and the bigger picture.

The film is based on the 1978 novel of the same name by Hubert Selby Jr, with whom Darren Aronofsky wrote the screenplay. Adaptations of novels often work best when they are more concerned with making a good movie, than being painstakingly faithful to the source material, and Requiem for a dream for me is a good example of the former.

The story is quite straight-forward and tells two parallel stories, about addiction to diet pills, TV and drugs. Requiem for a dream is about how these things can affect you and be hard to quit. About how going on a diet can be a nightmare. The game shows Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) watches become a horror film. She thinks people will like her more, if she achieves fame on TV, and this is a sad reflection of the culture we live in. Throughout the story there is a critique of Western culture and the ever present drive to achieve goals that are near impossible.

Requiem for a dream is probably best remembered for its eerie visual inventiveness, disturbing point-of-view, and the creepy and haunting music score by Clint Mansell. The soundtrack confirmed its popularity with the remix album Requiem for a Dream: Remixed, which contains new mixes of the music by Paul Oakenfold, Josh Wink, Jagz Kooner, and Delerium, among others. Clint Mansell theme lux aeterna from Requiem for a dream has also been used in trailers for other movies.

Possibly Ellen Burstyn’s finest work as an actress. In my opinion at 2001 Academy Awards she was robbed of an Oscar for her performance. For those who don’t remember, best actress in a leading role was won by Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich.
Rarely do we see a character study of a 65-year-old single parent, so that was a nice change. Burstyn is almost unrecognizable as Sara Goldfarb, so I give props to the make-up team as well. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) plays her son, and Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) is Harry’s girlfriend, both deliver impressive performances.

I don’t know if you can actually LIKE Requiem for a dream, which is why I haven’t given it more than 8/10. Enjoyment is not a word I would associate with the film. Instead dark, intense, painful, nasty and unforgettable are descriptive terms that come to mind.

For a small and bleak story that takes place in the apartment of a solitary, middle-aged woman, you wouldn’t think it’s that interesting to watch. But due to the extremely original technical side of the filmmaking, it’s like no other movie I have ever seen. I’m not at all surprised it ranks as #65 on IMDB’s Top 250. As in his previous film, π, Aronofsky uses montages of extremely short shots throughout the film (sometimes termed a hip hop montage). While an average 100-minute film has 600 to 700 cuts, Requiem features more than 2,000. Split-screen is used extensively, along with extremely tight close-ups. Long tracking shots (including those shot with an apparatus strapping a camera to an actor, called the Snorricam) and time-lapse photography are also prominent stylistic devices.

These techniques have been praised, although you could call it manipulation of the audience to obtain an emotional response. The film was indeed criticized for being fascinated by technique for its own sake, unsubtle, without a deeper sense of purpose.
But to know someone deeply is to know their pain, their flaws, and their brokenness. Requiem for a dream brings to light thoughts that most people scrupulously avoid. Life is very short and easily misspent. In our culture, almost everyone is addicted to something and few realize how profoundly they are addicted. As the characters refuse to acknowledge the obvious we as an audience see what’s really there.

I felt the filmmakers were trying to make me see through the eyes of a character. (Like for example the star gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey also was first person, or even Black Swan I reviewed last week)
Some people may think Requiem for a dream goes too far and is too vivid. I at times felt physically uneasy watching several scenes. So much that I sometimes had to look away.

Characters in this film seem to be addicts to escape hopeless situations. You probably will never want to go near drugs after having watched, so that’s a positive message! A good film to show to people, who are fighting an addiction or at risk of becoming an addict, I would think. We see how the characters each deal with their situations. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred. Obviously there is an unsubtle critique of the health care system in the United States, an uncaring, impersonal organization concerned only with the power of those who run it. The doctor she goes to visit concerning diet pills barely even looks at her when asking about her weight.

Aronofsky has said:

“Requiem for a Dream is not about heroin or about drugs. (…) The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, what is a drug? (…) The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person’s head when they’re trying to quit drugs, as with cigarettes, as when they’re trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. I thought it was an idea that we hadn’t seen on film and I wanted to bring it up on the screen.” Did you set out to make something that’s absolutely flattening?
“That’s the point of the movie and the book: the lengths people go to escape their reality. This film is a nose dive into the ground and, beyond the ground, into the sub-basement of hell. (…) You know, growing up in Manhattan, we used to go see “A Clockwork Orange” at the 8th Street Playhouse, or to Waverly Street Theater to see “Stop Making Sense” or “Eraserhead.” All those films were these exciting, forbidden films, and I think that’s where “Pi” and “Requiem” come out of — trying to make those types of films. (…) I think the film is pummeling. People are like, “You punched me for 90 minutes. (…) Every scene, my D.P. [director of photography] and I would say, “OK, where is Addiction in this scene? What is Addiction thinking? What is Addiction doing to basically make these characters suffer more?” That’s what Addiction does: It’s a terrible monster that eats the human spirit.” Wait. Why do they have to escape their realities?
“Because they’re chasing after a dream that’s never going to happen. They’re not dealing with their now and their reality. Sara’s not dealing with her loneliness. She’s got this pipe dream that she’s going to be on television and that she’s going to be loved by millions of people. I think that’s what Selby (author of the novel) is saying: When you chase after that fantasy, you create a hole in your present, and then you use anything to fill that hole, to forget about the present, to stay believing in that fantasy and that future. And that’s why it’s not really a drug movie, because anything can fill that hole. It could be tobacco, food, drugs, and ultimately what it really is, is hope.”

The script is also sporadically memorable in my opinion. For instance my favorite quote:

“money is never what I wanted from them, but all they (parents) want to give”

In the preface author of the book Selby explains the title:

“the book is about four individuals who pursued the American Dream, and the results of their pursuit.” He ends the preface with: “Unfortunately, I suspect there never will be a requiem for the Dream, simply because it will destroy us before we have the opportunity to mourn its passing. Perhaps time will prove me wrong. As Mr. Hemingway said, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?'”

Director Darren Aronofsky asked Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans to avoid sex and sugar for a period of 30 days in order to better understand an overwhelming craving.

The man peeling the orange (and the orange truck) in the scene where the characters go to receive a new shipment of drugs not only indicates their next destination – Florida – but also serves as a nod to the Godfather films, where the presence of oranges indicated disaster.

To sum up: Not family entertainment, more a frightening look at addiction. An independent film like no other I have seen. Extremely powerful that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

My rating is 8/10

Was my review useful? Have you seen Requiem for a Dream? Let me know what you think about the film, positive or negative



Interview of director Darren Aronofsky

Charlie Rose interview 2001, guest Ellen Burstyn

slantmagazine, Discussion about Darren Aronofsky

goodreads, Requiem for a Dream

26 thoughts on “Film review: Requiem for a Dream (2000)

  1. This is (I think) an impossible movie to enjoy or to like, but a movie that it is impossible not to respect. I feel that way about a lot of Aronofsky–his work is so powerful in general, but is also emotionally so difficult. I rarely choose to watch him, but I always find myself moved and stirred by what he does.

    This is an impactful film, one that will continue to stay with you for the next, oh, rest of your life.


  2. Probably the most depressing movie made but even then there is no denying it is one of the greats as well, just because of the technical aspects you mentioned. I will also agree that Ellen Burstyn was robbed, I love Julia Roberts, I even like her in Erin Brokovich but she was nothing in comparison to this performance.


  3. I'd agree that it's not a film that you can actually like and I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone (a bit like Antichrist). But it is a great film with a great atmosphere. The end sequence, where it intercuts between the final descents of the three characters, is incredibly powerful and also quite hard to watch. I would have liked to have seen what Aronofsky would have done with Batman…


  4. Amazing review! I also gave the movie 8/10 it was well made, but it wasn't a film I'd like to come back to. I also feel Burstyn was robbed, to give Roberts Oscar over her was a disgrace.


  5. Nice post Chris, This film disturbed the hell out of me when I saw it. I have not seen this in years and I am not sure I could stomach a rewatch. To call this film powerful would be selling it short.


  6. This remains as one of the most intensely disturbing & depressing films I've ever seen. Yet, the hallucinatory narrative, the bravura filmmaking & style, and the string of memorable performances, also made it quite a treat to watch. Great stuff, Chris!


  7. Definitely one of the most fascinating films I have had the pleasure to watch. As you eloquently state in your review, Requiem is definitely a film that is hard to stomach, but that certainly stays with you forever, even if you came out hating it. This is the reason why I don't own it, even though I admire it, and I have only seen it once.

    Ellen Burstyn definitely stole the show and she was definitely more deserving of an Oscar than Ms. Roberts, who was decent playing her usual self (though a little more fiery than normal), but certainly not as memorable as Ellen.

    Very nice post Chris. Definitely enjoyed reading it and I definitely agree with most of what you say. My rating for Requiem was the same 4 out 5.


  8. Great, all-encompassing review. I love these exhaustive reviews of yours, when you bring the book, interviews, and bits of trivia in the equation. Glad to hear you like the movie. Is it your favorite Aronofsky?


  9. I think I've been avoiding watching this since I heard it's quite depressing. But I also read some people praised it so much. So, it's possible to see them in the future.


  10. @SJHoneywell: You make some good points, impactful is a good descriptive term. Darren Aronofsky is a director who makes us feel uncomfortable, particularly in Requiem. He goes behind the curtain of what we don’t normally see in our everyday lives, the crazy inventor recluse, the drug-addicts, outer space, behind the scenes of the wrestling community, the stress/effort of the ballet dancers.


  11. @SDG: Technical aspects in Requiem were indeed worthy of praise. I would rank it among the better anti-drug movies, along with Trainspotting. Thanks for the follow, by the way!


  12. @evlkeith: During the powerful end sequence, sure is difficult to keep your eyes on the screen. Was a pity Aronofsky didn’t get to do a Batman flick, there’s still time, this year is Chris Nolan’s final Batman outing I believe.


  13. @Sati: Thanks! Erin Brokovich was a good performance, but Burstyn's was magnificent. In the Charlie Rose interview I linked to, Burstyn thinks Requiem was the best acting of her career, and a very challenging role.


  14. @3guys1movie: Thanks man, I’ve see Requiem twice, particularly the first viewing blew me away. I think it needed to be disturbing in order to scare us away from taking addictive and damaging drugs. Unfortunately for the diet pills industry, this movie was not a good advertisement !


  15. @Shubhajit: Hallucinatory narrative is what makes it so scary, we are basically witnessing a woman slowly going mad from the inside. Hopefully none of us will ever have to go through what these characters experienced. Thanks for stopping by, Shubhajit !


  16. @niels85: Glad you enjoyed reading my review! Definitely an easy film to admire, and easy to hate as well.

    I had a similar reaction to We Need to talk about Kevin, difficult to watch, impossible to forget! ( :


  17. @Alex Withrow: Thanks for the high praise! Don’t know if I can ever be exhaustive for each review, but I try to research as much as time allows. Sometimes I feel I should get paid for my efforts!
    I didn’t actually locate a lot about Requiem in terms of characterization, which tells me its more a technical movie, than a psychological one. I’m not sure I have a favorite by Aronofsky, I admire them all for different reasons. Ask me again in 5 years time ( :


  18. @Andina: Knowing your taste, I don’t think you’d like Requiem for a dream, very bleak story. Have not forgotten the guest post I promised you, I think will be childhood favorite The Goonies (1985), because I think you would enjoy watching it too ( :


  19. @Eric: Self destruction is well put, many of Aronofsky's characters head in that direction.
    Thanks for the link, have not seen that article before, so I'll be sure to take a look !


  20. Can't wait to read them! Thanks for picking it for my consideration 🙂 but it's okay if you pick one that closer to you as well. Have a nice weekend, Chris!


  21. Good review. I agree that Burstyn deserved better. I also feel that the three younger actors deserved more recognition, too. I was especially surprised by Wayans. I still maintain that Connelly won her Oscar not so much for A Beautiful Mind, but for the belated respect she got for Requiem for a Dream.

    Here's a morbid conversation starter – which of the four suffered the worst fate for their addiction? It might be easy to say Burstyn's because she is the most sympathetic, but I would go with Leto's. I suspect women would tend to say Connelly's.


  22. @Chip Lary: I agree, the three younger actors deserved more recognition.
    Good question, I don't know if you can compare such a subjective feeling as to suffer. People can suffer in all sorts of ways. It's like performances up for an oscar, roles are so very different. Me too, I'd go with Leto (due to his arm)


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