A flat in Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island. A young man is trying to take the television, but it has been chained to the wall. In the next room, an older woman cowers behind a locked door. After a little persuasion and a lot of abuse, he persuades her to slip the key under the door. He unlocks the telly, takes it to a pawn shop and uses the money to buy drugs.
At first, Requiem for a Dream tells us the stories of Sara and Harry Goldfarb. Sara lives on her own and spends her days watching tv programmes with a sleazy host and a scarily enthusiastic audience. One day, she gets an anonymous – and presumably hoax – telephone call, telling her that she’s been selected as a gameshow contestant and will one day be on the telly.
Sara’s son Harry spends most of his time with his mate Tyrone and girlfriend Marion. They are all druggies and permanently broke (hence the regular telly stealing) but Harry and Tyrone have a get rich quick scheme. They’ll buy a big batch of drugs, cut it with impurities, and sell it at enough of a profit to never have to worry about money again. They can even buy Sara a new, big, tv.
Sara is excited about her forthcoming telly appearance and tries on her old red dress. It no longer zips up at the back – she’s put on too much weight. After briefly trying a grapefruit and boiled egg diet – she lasts about a day – she gets her dodgy doctor to prescribe her diet pills. They’re more like amphetamines, and although she loses her appetite, she starts to go a little crazy.
Harry and Tyrone’s plan first succeeds, then comes unstuck when a feud between the suppliers mean that there’s nothing left to buy. Not only are they once more broke, they’ve been using a bit too many of their wares, and are starting to suffer withdrawal symptoms. Marion is suffering the worst, so its probably not a great idea to encourage her to sleep with her psychiatrist to raise some money.
Sara decides to visit the tv station and ask why they’ve still not invited her on. While she’s there, she starts to overreact and they take her away to a hospital, where they ask her to sign a form to allow them to perform ECT. She returns home a broken woman. As she watches the telly, she sees a younger, prettier version of herself. The host leaves the telly to enter her room. Then her fridge starts to attack her.
Meanwhile the lives of Harry, Tyrone and Marion start to splinter. Harry and Tyrone drive South, though they’re unclear whether they’re going to Florida or California. Marion is still desperate for drugs, and is forced to offer blow jobs and take part in sex shows to maintain her supply. A lesion in Harry’s arm starts to go septic, and he, too, is rushed to hospital, as Tyrone looks headed to prison.
I saw Requiem for a Dream way back when and to be honest, I could not remember a single scene. The only thing I remember is being slightly disappointed that it wasn’t as good as Last Exit to Brooklyn. Both films, released about a decade apart, were based on novels by Hubert Selby Jr., both had a very grim view of humanity, and both featured a woman being forced into sexual degradation shortly before the end.
And while it is true that Requiem for a Dream is no Last Exit to Brooklyn, I feel in retrospect that I was being rather harsh. The latter film is, as far as I’m concerned, a majestic film, and its no disgrace if a film doesn’t quite reach its level of greatness. Requiem for a Dream looks great and uses visual metaphors to show the state of mind of its various drug addled protagonists. It is also well structured, and manages to clearly tell multiple stories roughly simultaneously.
It’s not without its problems. It’s sometimes over-simplistic and there is a little more style than substance. If we do want to compare to a roughly contemporary film, maybe a better contrast would be with Trainspotting. Where Trainspotting gleefully showed why people might want to take drugs – because it is fun – Requiem for a Dream concentrates on the misery and could quite easily be co-opted into a conservative Just Say No narrative.
Nonetheless, this is a moving film which speaks to us directly. Interestingly, it was shown as part of the regular Saturday night Horror programme. While its not a horror film as such, it clearly addresses some of the tropes of the genre, such as a fear of the devil inside us, and it does it with style. One of those rare films which is better than you remember them.