Most viewers feel Requiem for a Dream is either a gut-wrenching, formally adventurous masterpiece or an ugly, flashy piece of empty-headed propaganda. Thing is, both camps are sort of right. Darren Aronofsky’s sophomore film is undeniably accomplished, fully realized in its single-minded, fearless intensity, but it’s also, quite frankly, pretty melodramatic and dumb. Requiem for a Dream is an uncompromised, relentless descent into hell with just one thing on its mind: Drugs are really, really bad for you.
It’s also the film that firmly established Aronofsky as a primarily visual filmmaker. His debut, Pi, was stylish but empty; later, he would elevate The Fountain‘s philosophical hooey through sheer operatic force of will and The Wrestler‘s solid but rote script through an expressive and soulful appropriation of the Dardenne brothers’ close-up tracking shots. If those later films are more successful than his second effort, it’s because their material could be elevated by style. In Requiem for a Dream, there’s nothing going on but style, and ultimately, that just isn’t enough.
For a while, though, it almost is. The film’s first 30 minutes are some kind of tour de force, exploding out of the gate as the expression of a unique cinematic voice and introducing the stylistic techniques that structure the entire film. Establishing the film’s parallel editing schema, Aronofsky and editor Jay Rabinowitz cut between its central characters—Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her junkie son Harry (Jared Leto), and Harry’s partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly)—and their respective drugs of choice: heroin and ecstasy for Harry and Tyrone, heroin and cocaine for Marion, and sugar, television, and, eventually, amphetamines for Sara. Utilizing an entire stable of visual tricks, from split-screens to slow- and fast-motion to rhythmically repeated inserts, these early moments are an exciting and purely cinematic experience. One scene, in which a moment of tenderness between Harry and Marion is presented through split-screened close-ups, may be the finest sequence of Aronofsky’s career, exquisitely expressing the characters’ intimacy as well as their fundamental distance.
Taking place over the course of one year, structured into four chapters tied to the seasons, Requiem for a Dream starts bleakly and just gets bleaker, and as it progresses these stylistic decisions start to feel more and more oppressive. This is obviously by design (no one would argue that the film should ever be fun), but there are only so many times you can show the effect of cocaine through fast motion or mental deterioration through fish-eye lenses before the techniques start to feel less expressive than lazy and obvious—crutches for a filmmaker who used up his entire bag of tricks in the first 30 minutes.
Narratively, as the film spirals toward its nightmarish finale, things start to get so melodramatically awful for its characters that it starts to seem like a modern-day equivalent to Reefer Madness, never so much as in the ugly way it introduces the character of a black drug dealer solely to exploit audience disgust at seeing a white woman taken advantage of by a black man. And no matter how relentlessly upsetting and effective Requiem for a Dream‘s climax is (and it is effective, a self-contained masterpiece of aggressive cross-cutting and sound design), by that point it’s almost impossible to shake the image of Aronofsky as a gym coach hysterically lecturing his class on the dangers of drug use. Sorry, but this reviewer got enough of that in high school.