At the London Film Festival premiere of his new movie, Requiem For A Dream, director
Darren Aronofsky introduces it with a health warning of sorts. "What you’re
gonna see is kind of intense and in about 45 or 50 minutes, you’re gonna be feeling a
lot of pain and I want to apologise now." The film’s star, Ellen Burstyn,
concurs. "I hope you brought a friend with you because you’re going to have
trouble getting home after watching this film. It’s very upsetting. I’m
sorry." The audience laughs, but one hour and 40 minutes later and they’re
sitting in shell-shocked silence as a haunting classical score fused with hip-hop beats
plays out over the end credits. They’ve just witnessed one of the most unique,
unsettling and visually stunning cinematic achievements in recent memory. When the lights
go up, Aronofsky asks if anyone is angry. No one can speak.
"pulls no punches"
Requiem For A Dream is Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to his astounding debut movie
Pi – the lo-fi, black-and-white tale of madness and mathematics that was made for
$60,000 and shot guerrilla-style on the streets and subways of New York City. It’s
also an adaptation of the seminal 1978 addiction-themed novel of the same name by Last
Exit To Brooklyn-author Hubert Selby Jr., a writer whose prose-style pulls no punches with
the 31-year-old director.
"After I read his books I feel like I have a fist indentation in my solarplexus
for about three weeks," he admits, smiling. "And I wanted to share that with all
you guys." Darren Aronofsky, it would seem, enjoys the idea of being a cinematic
Co-written by Aronofsky and Selby himself, Requiem For A Dream charts the parallel,
addiction-fuelled narratives of TV junkie Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her drug addict
son Harry (Jared Leto), his fashion-designer girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connolly) and his
dealer best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Set in New York, in the decaying holiday resort
of Coney Island, it’s a disturbing film about the lengths people will go to escape
their reality. Each character is addicted to the image of a better life and it was this
idea, rather than the prospect of making a film about drugs, that hooked Aronofsky on the
"physical, emotional and psychological hell"
"What’s brilliant about Selby is that he shows us that anything can be an
addiction to fill that hole when we’re trying to escape reality. It can be TV, it can
be coffee, it can be sex, it can be someone saying ‘I love you’. I wasn’t
really interested in junkies and the word heroin is never mentioned in the movie. So for
me, it was really about how anything could be a drug."
The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of the physical, emotional and psychological
hell associated with addiction and its cinematic punch is provided by the director’s
wildly inventive visual style. Building on a fast-cutting, sampling technique he started
in film school and developed in Pi, Aronofsky and his editor Jay Rabinowitz created a
series of what he calls "hip-hop montages" to convey the extent of each
character’s addiction. "The idea was just sampling images and sounds to help
tell the story and push it forward," he explains. "I grew up in Brooklyn during
the eighties and the golden age of hip-hop; before Eminem. As a kid I was a really bad
graffiti artist and a really bad breakdancer but I still wanted to take some hip-hop ideas
and apply them to narrative filmmaking. So that’s where all the fast cutting came
from. It just happened to work really well with the idea of obsession and addiction."
"as horribly compelling as a road accident"
The end result is probably one of the most effective (if unintentionally) anti-drug
films ever made. There is no catharsis for the characters in Requiem For A Dream. No one
recovers, nothing works out and its impact is as horribly compelling as a road accident.
This was a deliberate ploy by Aronofsky who was bored with American cinema’s
addiction to happy endings. "Hollywood has sort of killed the tragedy," says the
director. "It doesn’t really exist in cinema anymore. Evens in so-called darker
films – especially in a lot of drug movies – so many people recover and get out
alive. And anyone who has been on the planet for 15 or 20 years generally knows that
that’s not going to happen."
Instead, Aronofsky hopes that Requiem For A Dream will be about the catharsis the
audience will have when they realise that their lives are "not as fucked up as these
It was undoubtedly this insistence on tragedy that made Requiem For A Dream a more
difficult second feature for its writer-director than it should have been. After winning
the Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival with Pi, Aronofsky
immediately became a hot property and when that film went on to become an unexpected
commercial success, financiers told him, "What ever you want to do now, we’ll do
it." He promptly sent out the script for Requiem For A Dream and not one person
called him back.
"That’s a true story," Aronofsky says reflecting on his first encounter
with the fickleness of the movie industry. "It was a real struggle but [my] producer,
Eric Watson, said, ‘whenever everyone is telling you no, you know you’re doing
something right.’ So it’s a victory to have this film done."
It’s unlikely he’ll have to struggle with his next couple of films in quite
the same way. Aronofsky has been confirmed as the writer-director of the next Batman movie
on which he is collaborating with Dark Knight Returns-creator Frank Miller. It’s a
prospect that has the fanboys drooling at the mouth, especially after the last two
kiddie-oriented cinematic outings for the Caped Crusader were so roundly despised.
Before that, however, he’s working on a remix album of the Requiem For A Dream
soundtrack with its composer Clint Mansell, the former Pop Will Eat Itself front-man who
also provided the atmospheric, techno-laden score for Pi .
Film-wise he’s going to make the movie that he’s been writing for most of the
last year. "I’ve been pitching it as a post-Matrix, metaphysical science fiction
film." He smiles. "That sounds kinda cool, right?"
Yes it does. Just don’t expect to feel too good after seeing it.
Published February 8, 2001