Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, based on the novel of the same name, is a harrowing tale that primarily deals with the perils of drug addiction. But its greatness lies in how it extends its theme to narrate a moving story of loneliness, grief and the dangerous human tendency to use a quick fix.
The plot revolves around Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), as they spiral into desperation and despair caused by their reliance on drugs, not only for pleasure but also for to live. As is common with people trafficking drugs, they are themselves addicted to heroin and throughout the film, we learn to what lengths they would go to get their hands on it. An alternate narrative thread focuses on Harry's mother, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), who leads a soulless, lonely existence, getting to see her son only occasionally and understandably unaware of his drug escapades. Years after losing her husband, she spends her days glued to television and constantly fantasising about the time when she used to be beautiful and had a caring partner to be loved by. So when she gets a call informing her that she has won a spot to be on her favourite show, she does not think twice about its credibility. She is elated and soon shares with her friends her desire to lose weight and go back to looking like her old self. Upon one of them advising her to take prescribed diet pills, she does exactly that – and thus begins her path to self-destruction.
The characters are not without their dreams. Harry and Marion want to open a clothing store; Tyrone wants to get out of the ghetto. They want to make it big and they want to do it quickly. In a moving scene, Harry learns of the diet pills and crash diet his mom is going through, and points out to her the strong possibility of the call being a hoax. Yet, Sara insists, saying that the idea of soon being on television is now a reason to live; that the idea of being able to wear the red dress she was no longer able to fit into is a reason to continue her drab and seemingly pointless life. She is unconcerned about how such a sudden change is too good to be safe. It's a terrific and unforgettable scene because it lets us know how both mother and son feel lonely and yet are in no position to help each other.
All the trio can think of is drugs. Whenever they take drugs, we are shown the process in extreme close-up, entirely filling the screen, accompanied by accentuated sound effects. It arrives and ends quickly, as if to show how quickly they take effect and just as quickly go away. When they find themselves in want of money, the desperation to buy drugs only increases. They are so intoxicated by this quick fix that they would go to any length to get it. At one point, Marion even resorts to prostitution, encouraged by Harry. The film is not afraid to show the havoc drugs can have on the lives of its abusers, and as each scene passes, we become increasingly aware of the impending doom that is going to send the characters to hell. It is this visceral, unflinching portrayal, helped by terrific performances, that makes the movie a haunting experience. One loves it for how great it is but also feels the need to get it over with because of its sheer hopelessness and brutality.
The climax, accompanied by a scintillating score by Clint Mansell, is a montage of the characters at their worst having lost a piece of themselves. It hammers home the point about not losing sight of our dreams by being led astray by quick fixes. However, this is not just a cautionary tale about drug addiction but also a searing drama that tells us to lend a helping hand to another person who needs it. It tells us that even simple compliments can go a long way to make someone's day better. Some have argued that the movie is silly in its depiction of only the extremity of addiction. But I see this as a movie that shows how even a seemingly innocuous habit can soon lead to dire consequences.