Dark and harrowing, Requiem for a Dream is a visceral portrayal of the destructive power of addiction and the damage that it inflicts on not only the users, but also those around them. Though dismissed by many as merely another dark tale of drug abuse, the film presents much more, and forces the viewer to ask not only about the hazards of heroin and amphetamine abuse, but much more about the nature of addiction, and, as Darren Aranofsky the director stated: “we suddenly say, 'Oh, my God, what is a drug?'”
“I’m not an addict, it’s cool, I feel alive. If you don’t have it you’re on the other side.” Though the song was not included in the film, these words from K’s Choice perfectly describe the feeling around the central part of the film. As the characters continue to delude themselves that they are not succumbing to their individual addictions with the persistent dreams of a brighter future, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to watch their lives and sanity crumbling around them with alarming alacrity. Regardless of the drug of choice, this is the reality of any addict, of any addiction, be it heroin and amphetamines as depicted in this movie, or even the socially acceptable and seemingly mundane drug of choice for many: Alcohol.
Alcohol is sold legally across the country, is considered a social lubricant, and is a perfectly acceptable indulgence in modern culture. It is marketed at sporting events, on prime time television, radio, the internet, and in newspapers and magazines nationwide. It is placed in forefront of how Americans view relaxation and pleasurable times. It is enjoyed by Presidents and Senators, actors and athletes, parents and teachers, friends and relatives. It is present in our lives from beginning to end. And though it’s abuses are well documented and warned against, and alcoholism is recognized as a serious disease, it is still not respected as a dangerous drug, but merely a pleasurable indulgence that certain people should probably learn to temper.
An alcoholic can sit down to watch a movie like Requiem for a Dream with alcohol in hand and still look with pity at what the poor characters have done to themselves. We can sit with our friends who agree and never make the connection between the addictions. Perhaps we can maintain our lives as functioning alcoholics which allows others around us to dismiss our self-destruction as minor, incidental, or even non-existent. Perhaps we are not so well controlled and others have noticed the destructive and delusional paths we embark on, yet still will never relate our disease to that of a compulsive gambler, a speed freak, a crackhead, or a smack junkie.
Perhaps the alcoholic will never lose his arm as Jared Leto’s character does, or resort to prostitution, as Jennifer Connelly’s character. Perhaps the alcoholic will never find themselves in jail as Marlon Wayans’ character, and most likely will never be forced into electroshock therapy to attempt to break the delusions of Ellyn Burstyn’s character. This does not mean they are not stuck in a cycle of self-destruction. This does not mean they are safe. They are still an addict, and regardless of the drug of choice, they are still delusional, and are still on just as dangerous a path as if they had chosen ecstasy or opium to be their intoxicant of choice.
As Ellyn Burstyn’s character shows, the socially acceptable drugs we take can be just as damaging, both physically and psychologically, to us as those that are deemed dangerous and illegal by society. Her obsession with television, and one show in particular, leads her to begin taking, then eventually abusing, amphetamines in an attempt to lose weight so she can wear a dress which was a favorite of her late husbands again. She believes that she will be invited to be a contestant on this game show which she enjoys so much, that she can no longer accept the reality that she may never be asked to appear on it. The further into her delusion she sinks, the more she feels the need to medicate herself, and the increased dosage of narcotics only further fuels her delusions, creating the vicious cycle which ultimately leads to her downfall, and a total psychological break. This forces the viewer to ask themselves if the heroin being abused by the other characters is truly the most dangerous drug, or if it is addiction itself which is the most dangerous drug.
If addiction itself is the true hazard, then one has to ask themselves if this could possibly happen to them. Just because a person doesn’t abuse hard narcotics with clearly life ravaging consequences, it does not mean they haven’t planted the seed of self-destruction. Marijuana and alcohol have much weaker immediate effects, but that is exactly what lends them to being equally damaging. People believe that they can control themselves while intoxicated, building up tolerances, and losing awareness of the exact level of intoxication they are achieving through a delusion created by past successes at maintaining dignity and decency. But how many times must one drink and drive before they kill themselves or worse yet, someone else, someone completely innocent of their addiction, completely ignorant of their delusion.
Addiction and delusion take many forms in our society. Requiem for a Dream shows us a brutally vivid and disturbing vision of the depravity of excessive drug abuse, certainly, but also raises many questions as to the nature of addiction, its causes, and its ramifications. Is it the heroin that we really should fear? Is it the amphetamines? Is alcohol truly a safe alternative? Or could it be that any habits we pursue carries with it a great risk? As Brad Paisley said in his song Whiskey Lullaby: “He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger ...”