The Top Ten Project #9: Requiem For A Dream
Over the next few weeks I'm going to be counting down my ten favourite films from the last decade. The only way to make a list like this is to be completely subjective. I will look at the films that most influenced my own taste. Without further ado... Number 9, Requiem for a Dream...
9: REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (Dir: Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
"When I pitched the movie, I told people that I wanted it to be like you jumped out of an airplane and about midway coming down you remember that you forgot your parachute. That's where the movie begins -- the second you realize you forgot your parachute. And the film ends five minutes after you hit the ground, and you're alive during that last five minutes, catching your last few breaths. For me, that's what the film was, a roller coaster that smashes into a brick wall. I wanted no catharsis at the end; [I wanted it to be] just as harsh and intense as possible. It's a punk movie where the audience is a mosh pit of emotion."
The above description of Requiem for a Dream is about as apt as you can get. This film punched me in the face hard when I first saw it. It came out on the tail of the late 90s heroin chic movement that was beginning to plague indie film but Requiem put an end to all of that. I saw this film twice in two weeks on its first release. Each session had between 5 and 10 walkouts and I became fascinated at what was triggering these reactions. I vividly remember one young woman, no older than her mid-twenties, retreating quickly from the cinema during the later electro-shock moments of the film. She bumped me as she was escaping but I didn't sense she was angry, probably closer to nauseous. I was 20 years old and had never seen a film have this kind of effect on people. I became obsessed with working out how Aronofsky did it, and so I fell even deeper into the cinephile rabbit hole.
The countless stylistic devices Aronofsky employs in this film are stunning. Many detractors cited the young film maker syndrome when explaining their dislike of the film. For them it became a youthful style over substance scenario, distancing the viewer from the emotional content of the film. I can only strongly disagree because for me every single device was employed on a solid functional foundation and the overall cumulative affect is impossible to deny. One of the primary techniques Aronofsky uses is the repetition of speedily cut montages, often referred to as hip hop montages. These bits of cinematic shorthand are used whenever a character uses drugs. A quick torrent of close up images blast the viewer. Aronofsky also uses the same technique to show characters drinking coffee, watching TV, or taking diet medication. The purpose is clear. Addiction is addiction and these characters are trapped in a world where they are all craving something to fill their void. Their inability to connect with each other is another theme that Aronofsky visually represents brilliantly, using split screen techniques to separate characters who are often in the same room together. These are two of the more obvious devices employed in the film but there are many more. At the time I first saw this film, it was the strongest example of pure cinema I had ever seen.
Aronofsky's description of the film as skydiving without a parachute is perfect. The film is defiantly single minded in its momentum. You know pretty quickly it isn't going to end well and as the narrative accelerates towards inevitability you get the feeling you are trapped in a speeding car aimed directly at a brick wall. Requiem generates its intensity by cross-cutting between its characters in an increasingly manic way as the film progresses. At one point Aronofsky actually rattles the sprockets of the film, which on my first viewing perfectly represented the chaotic electrical energy in my brain at those moments (David Fincher also used this technique to great effect in Fight Club). Just watching even one of these stories reach their logical conclusion would be tough enough but Aronofsky piles all 4 character's conclusions on top of each other virtually simultaneously in one of the most rhapsodically intense climaxes I have ever seen (to this day that comment still holds true).
This is the single strongest anti-drug film I have ever seen but its not just about drugs. In some ways it could be considered a companion piece to Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which came out only two years prior. Both films were based on definitive cult novels and both stories are about the deconstruction of the American dream. This seemed to be a recurring theme for several film-makers in the late nineties. Requiem for A Dream is literally just that, a requiem for the American dream which has been lost in a swamp of false needs and commercialism. We are left completely empty and void of all hope.
You may criticise Requiem for being a hope-less film but I think being left with nothing leaves one to start anew which is where this film leaves the audience. You might be smashed to bits but scrape yourself together, suck it up and look at what you actually truly need and want. Novelist Hubert Selby Jr (whose book the film is based on) has described the American dream as "amorphous and unattainable" while Hunter Thompson basically concluded that the American dream doesn't actually exist (I'm taking the film as my text here. Gilliam left a couple of scenes out of the film that were in the book and offered an alternative perspective on the issue). Either way, at the dawn of the 21st century there were plenty of ruminations on the state of civilisation flying around.
I cannot talk about Requiem without mentioning the profoundly influential original score from Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet. This has become one of the most replayed scores of the decade basically becoming shorthand for any artist who wants to implant a sense of operatic misery into their work.
Requiem for a Dream is without a doubt one of the strongest films of the last decade. As more time passes it also is beginning to look like am important film of its times. It encapsulated a sense of nihlistic despair with western values that stands with a few other films (Fight Club, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas just to name two) as important pre-9/11 films. Aronofsky followed this with another masterwork, The Fountain before slowing down a bit with The Wrestler but Requiem for a Dream will always stand out as one of the first cinematic masterpieces of the 21st century.
Just in case this reminiscing has left you feeling a little heavy I will leave you with two examples of how Requiem has slipped into popular culture.
Check out this amusing video that re-purposes the requiem score in an amusingly creative way:
How about we take the audio from the Requiem for a Dream trailer and cut it to video from Toy Story? If there ever was a more disparate combination of sources then I have yet to see it.