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This is Your Brain on Art House

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

When I’ve asked my students over the last couple of years what drug films they’ve seen, I’ve been surprised to hear Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) cited far more than any other film. I already had a sense of Requiem’s expanding audience since its limited theatrical release in 2000. It quickly joined its source material, Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel of the same name, as a cult favorite. (Selby co-wrote the screenplay and appears briefly in the film.) Users at film websites rave about it. Youtubers play around with its visuals and its score. List makers call it an all-time great drug film. There’s even a puppet version which, forgive me, will serve here as a synopsis.

But what surprised me was its popularity among adolescents. Among my students, even those who had not seen it knew classmates in high school who had watched it together and who had urged them to check it out. It seems that Requiem’s burgeoning status as a cult favorite encompasses not only a reputation among adult film enthusiasts, but also word-of-mouth circulation among audiences who may or may not have permission to watch its “unrated” content.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh’s drug film Traffic came out in wide release the same year, to massive critical and commercial success, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of twenty-five today who has seen it outside of class. Not for nothing this similarity, though: in both Requiem for a Dream and Traffic, knockout punches on the perils of addiction come in graphic scenes of upper-middle-class white girls being held in sexual captivity by black beasts. The question that inevitably arises about drug films is their relationship to the historical exploitation genre, in which an ostensibly anti-drug message serves as cover for lurid entertainment. Many viewers describe it exactly in those two registers: as an intoxicating sensory experience and a powerful Just Say No polemic. I think it would be unfair, based on this reception dynamic, to reduce the intensely wrought Requiem to the status of, say, a Reefer Madness. But the film’s drug content does, in a perhaps more interesting way, come from that era. 

Aronofsky’s second film after the critically acclaimed Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dreamtraces the downfalls of four Brooklyn addicts, played by Oscar-nominee Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connolly. Using a range of creative visual techniques and digital effects, and an imposing score by Clint Mansell, it renders the highs, lows, and rituals of drug use, as well as the steady drumbeats and exploding crises of addiction. Each character begins with high hopes: of rejuvenation, material success, escape from the streets, and creative work. But their combinations of delusion and drug habit produce rapid descents. The climactic movement of the film is a grim, overpowering, sometimes shocking montage weaving together each character’s final plunge to a traumatic low. This sequence is responsible for the film’s “unrated” status, as well as its reputations for both intense entertainment and scared-straight messaging.

Ellen Burstyn: Overpowered

Both Selby and Aronofsky have said that the addiction narratives in their respective novel and film are vehicles for exploring more general problems of desire, delusion, and materialism in American culture. But at the same time, neither has shied away from overt anti-drug rhetoric. Selby, who died in 2004 at the age of 75, spoke openly of his longtime opiate addiction. Aronofsky last year created four melodramatic public service ads for an anti-meth campaign.

Watching those PSAs confirmed my sense that there really are no indie quotation marks around the drug horrors in Requiem. Not only in its reception but in its composition, it is a drug film that offers a contact high in a cautionary tale. The critical response to Requiem reflected these mixed effects, in a hedged set of judgments that stood in contrast to the wide adulation accorded to Traffic. Most reviewers saw Requiem as either a breakthrough achievement or at least a highly original and affecting film. But a significant minority denounced it as classic drug exploitation dressed up less with morality than with lifeless art house pretensions. I wasn’t the first viewer to think of Reefer Madness as the exploitation standard against which to consider such judgments.

I don’t think the comparison implies a total deflation of Requiem’s purposes, though. In a Quentin Tarantino world, the fusion of art house and exploitation styles and purposes is a surface fact, not a critical conclusion. I don’t call a melodramatic or even horror-inspired storyline a disqualifying factor in an addiction film, even if it lacks a sense of humor. I can respect the appeal of classic drug tropes to directors interested in formal experimentation and dark social commentary. As much as I hate to read some viewers gush about Requiem’s “realism,” I just don’t find the exploitation dynamic to be as deeply deceptive as the word implies.

Instead, the comparison to Reefer helped draw out something else I find fascinating about Requiem. The setting of the film is obscurely dated, in a dreamy, deserted, out-of-time version of Brooklyn. Further, Aronofsky and Selby kept the names of the four main characters: working-class Jewish widow Sara Goldfarb, her son Harry, his jive-talking black friend Tyrone C. Love, and Harry’s over-analyzed/underloved upper-middle-class Jewish girlfriend Marion Silver. How do you name two hip young heartthrobs Harry Goldfarb and Tyrone C. Love in a turn-of-the-millennium movie?

Brooklyn: the Timeless Classic

Theirs is the ethnic Brooklyn of mid-twentieth-century fiction, not contemporary reality. Similarly, their efforts to boost goods, raise bread, cop some pure, turn on, and dig tunes, seem roughly of that same era. Of course, users of illegal drugs do all those things today, too. But there is a certain analog-era quality to the entire drug milieu of the film, not least its language. It is the world that was shaped by Harry Anslinger and his draconian reign at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962. Its argot echoes Beat fiction and, perhaps more reliably, can be found in the words of David Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais’ subjects in Addicts who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, 1923-1965.

This half-century time lag is not inexplicable. Selby drew for his 1978 novel on his own experiences as an opiate user and addict, which ran from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. Certainly, there must have been users in the mid-1970s who still talked the way his characters did. But, well, here are a couple of examples:

When everything was straightened out they would simply cut the whole scene loose, but for now theyd take an occasional taste to hang loose. The cats in the streets were generating steam trying, desperately, to dig up the bread to cop, but how can you boose enough to be able to go for five hundred bucks? Hustlin, scufflin and boosin enough to cop a couple a bags a day was a bitch, but five hundred????

Aronofsky has said he wanted to recreate exactly what he felt reading Selby’s novel, an experience of being “in the darkest place imaginable, but it’s completely human.” He called the style that achieves this effect “emotional expressionism” and said it is the key to his composition of the narrative.

I don’t know exactly what role the film’s fidelity to Selby’s midcentury content played in the development of this style. But I think it’s fair to say that drug realism was not his first priority. Personally, I don’t find the film to have consistent emotional depth either; after some early scenes of the characters’ happiness, they become cartoonish precisely when they enter their addiction spirals.

Heavy, Man.

One of the closest comparisons to Requiem’s content that I can think of is “Hooked!”, the comic book distributed at New York’s first methadone clinic in the mid-60s. It has most of the main character types and plot elements of Requiem.  Yet I find the film fascinating, beyond its visual inventiveness. It’s because of the history of its particular narrative stretching back through Selby’s life, and the uncertain historical awareness it seems to have about its own genre. Is it the result of a young, technically brilliant indie director’s storytelling naiveté, or is it that same brilliance producing a multilayered meta-narrative? I don’t know but, like the kids today, I don’t mind watching it.

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