Placing society’s margins under the microscope

The psychological and physical decay resulting from drug addiction is tactfully explored in Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece.

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A close-up of a blue eye looking panicked.
Source: moviecultists.com

Independent cinema has a tendency to reach to the margins of society – to metropolitan underbellies, to corrupt corners of institutions, to the shadowy parts of our perceptions of society. This desire to put moral decay on screen and expose the suppressed or hidden secrets with classics such as The Godfather and Trainspotting, and, though perhaps in a more sanitised form, in recent offerings such as Beautiful Boy. Yet Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream pushes these notions of decay to its limits; the director stares the vulgar right in the face, taking what it normally uncomfortably pushed to the margins and slamming it into the spotlight. In his magnum opus, Aronofsky tackles the extremes of drug addiction with barely a flinch.

Viewers have a tendency to consider Requiem as an archetypal drug film. But Aronofsky departs from the ‘traditional’ addiction narrative that we are acquainted with through Sara’s storyline of dieting and self-consciousness, and the film compels the viewer to understand that the characters’ decay is not simply the result of drug-use, but of the most primordial of feelings. Completing the arc is the very final scene where Sara is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. In her dream, which has become conflated with reality, she sees herself finally fulfilling her ambition of appearing on a television game show. It is because of this ambition and her poor body image that she began to diet, leading to her addiction and mental deterioration. Here, the trope of the drug addict is made more humane, and the distinction between the typical drug user (or ‘ junkie’) and the more benign ‘addict’ is blurred. Sara’s feelings of self-consciousness are familiar as a deeply human experience. By grounding their narrative in basic instincts and emotions, addiction no longer becomes ‘other’ and uncivilised. Rather, one is forced reflect and evaluate one’s own character, discover similarities to those in the film, and find compassion for them.

The film opens with rapid montages depicting the ecstasy of not only drug use, but of all addictions. Ellen Burstyn’s character sits in front of her television with a box of confectionary, her finger circling a piece of chocolate in an almost erotic fashion, alluding to her unhealthy relationship with food. Such a visceral cinematic technique becomes oppressive, and the film closes just as it begins: with flickering scenes which, more frenzied and set against an overwhelming cacophony of orchestral music, depict the characters in their decayed states. The arc is complete, and all four of the principle characters, in the pursuit of dreams, money, and euphoria, have succumbed to addiction and been destroyed by it, all failed by the public institutions which exist to protect them.

Equally disturbing is the way in which the characters are let down by the institutions which supposedly exist to assist them. Sara’s apathetic doctor recklessly prescribes her diet pills and ignores obvious signs of addiction, and the psychiatric hospital subjects her to problematic treatments that exacerbate her mental degradation. Another character’s psychologist pays her for sex, and the prison in which another is incarcerated is inhumanely run, caring little for his poor state of health. Although these representations are fictitious, they nonetheless expose an anxiety about the way public institutions treat those in a mentally and physically deteriorating state; the very same people they exist to support. This anxiety, quite overtly expressed in the film, is not unfounded: Sara’s storyline directly alludes to the ‘rainbow pill’ regimen of amphetamines that doctors prescribed in the 1970s, which is just one instance of drugs being over- or mis-prescribed. The sexually-motivated abuse of power by the psychologist and the dismissal of the prison also ring especially true in the wake of the #MeToo movement and recent controversies surrounding prison conditions.

Although the film is now ten years old, the themes seem timeless. Addiction
in the United States demonstrates whole new dimensions of decay – physical, psychological, and societal – unlike anything we’ve seen before. Perhaps, then, Requiem for a Dream deserves renewed attention. Unlike other representations, addiction is not presented as a moral deficiency, or indicative of bad character, but as a fault arising from human emotions and the mistakes everyone makes, and tragically exacerbated by public institutions which, again and again, fail to address the problem.

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