Published October 1, 2000
Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi) from a script he wrote with Hubert Selby, Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn) and based on the latter’s novel, has a promising beginning. We see Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) stealing his own mother’s television set in order to pawn it for drug money. His mother, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), locks herself in a closet and begs him not to do it, more for his sake than for that of her TV. “Why you gotta make me feel so guilty, ma?” says Harry, and then curses her because the set is chained to the radiator. She hastily assures him that “The chain isn’t for you; it’s for the robbers” and slips the key under the closet door for him. “Come on out,” he says. “Please, ma?” But she only huddles down more and carries on an imaginary conversation with her late husband, Seymour, telling him that “It’ll be all right in the end.”
“F*** it!” says Harry, and wheels the TV out with the help of his friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Together they walk it through the streets of Brooklyn to what looks like a stall at a street market, where they sell it to Mr. Rabinowitz. Later Sara comes down to buy it back. This is apparently a familiar routine by now to Mr Rabinowitz. “You should tell the police,” he advises Sara. “He wouldn’t be stealing no more the TV.”
“I can’t do that,” insists Sara. “He’s my only son.”
So far so good. It is a riveting little vignette and sets us up for what ought to have been a fascinating exploration of the relationship between son and mother as the core of the film. But although there is some of this, it is too little and too late, consisting really of only one scene in which Harry visits her without stealing the television, telling her he’s sorry and wants to make it up to her by buying her a new, big-screen television from Macy’s. He’s into drug dealing by this time and temporarily flush. He tells mom he’s working for a big importer. She is overjoyed. But Aronofsky doesn’t know where to go with the relationship from here, and the rest of the film goes off on several tangents, none of which is remotely as interesting as what we are presented with at the start.
There is, for example, Harry’s relationship with the beautiful Marion (Jennifer Connolly), for instance, whom his mother thinks a respectable girl from a wealthy family but who is a junkie like himself. She ends up prostituting herself (with Harry’s connivance) for drug money. Then there is Harry’s and Tyrone’s business venture in partnership with a drug dealer called Brodie, which brings them in a lot of money until the enterprise ends abruptly as Brodie is killed by the mafia. Finally, there is Sara’s fantasy life, which is centered on a TV game cum self-improvement show of some sort featuring “Tappy Tibbons” (Christopher McDonald) and a raucous studio audience. Sara comes to believe that she is to be a guest on the show and gets hooked on diet pills as she tries to lose enough weight so that she can fit into her red dress.
Are you beginning to see a pattern here? It is almost as if the movie had been made as an anti-drug tract, so relentlessly does it semaphore its message about the destructiveness of drugs and the self-destructiveness of those who use them. Hm, seems to me I’ve heard that somewhere before. There is lots of fancy quick-cutting in the montage — powder being spilled, bill rolled up, lighter lit, human pupil dilating, a faux-microscopic view of cells being inundated — that invariably accompanies the main characters’ snorting or shooting up, but the human dimension is neglected. It is lost, I think, in the film’s obvious pleasure at grossing us out about the consequences of drug use and in its failed attempt to be subtle about the way in which TV is just another sort of drug. That, too, sounds vaguely familiar. Miss Burstyn does a great job in the role of Sara, and full marks to the other actors, but druggie intensity, whether of the chemical or cathode-ray variety, is not enough to carry the movie.