Study Guide

Requiem for a Dream Introduction

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Requiem for a Dream Introduction

Release Year: 2000

Genre: Drama

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Hubert Selby, Jr. and Darren Aronofsky

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans

The United States has employed a variety of campaigns intended to keep kids off drugs. The 80s saw "This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" The 90's saw D.A.R.E., which was supposed to stand for "Drug Abuse Resistance Education," but might as well have meant, "Drugs Are Really Excellent." And the 2010s saw a series of billboards where emojis told kids they don't need to do drugs to fit in.

We will totally do anything the poo emoji tells us to do.

In 2000, what was perhaps the most effective anti-drug message wasn't a government public service announcement; it was a feature film from director Darren Aronofsky: Requiem for a Dream. Seriously, Nancy Reagan should have given Requiem for a Dream two thumbs up…because it's the ultimate "Just say NO to drugs" film.

Requiem is about four New Yorkers who get into a variety of drugs that end up ruining their lives. If this film is to be believed, you do drugs, and you'll lose everything (even your arm), be miserable, and probably die. If Requiem for a Dream were made of emojis, it would be: TV, money, pills, needle, OMG face, skull.

Okay, we're oversimplifying it. Requiem isn't intended to be an anti-drug movie, although it is as far from glamorizing substance abuse as you can get. Aronofsky's second feature film, based on a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., is about the complicated nature of addiction and dependence, willpower, and desire.

These are familiar themes for the director, who also helmed films like Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014), which involved Natalie Portman trying to herd animals onto an ark and Russell Crowe practicing for Swan Lake in a tutu.

Hmm, we may have gotten those two movies backwards.

Requiem for a Dream stars dreamboat-turned-everyone's least favorite Joker Jared Leto, Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly, and White Chicks star Marlon Wayans proving that he has massive dramatic chops as well as comedic power.

But the true star is Ellen Burstyn.

Previously known as the mom from 1973's The Exorcist, the then-68-year-old Burstyn delivered a career-defining performance as Sara Goldfarb, a lonely old woman dangerously addicted to diet pills. Only Burstyn could take a role that veers toward comical—in one scene, Sara imagines her refrigerator trying to eat her—and turn it into an Academy Award-nominated performance that goes down as one of the greatest performances in movie history. (Source)

That year Julia Roberts won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich, making us wonder if there was still something in the water. We love you, Jules, but really?

Requiem is an intense viewing experience. Originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA, Requiem's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, refused to make the requested cuts, instead releasing the film unrated in limited theaters. So if you're watching the "Director's Cut," that is how the film was originally released. An R-rated version removes six seconds (yes, only six) from the film, which completely changes it into a family-friendly film. *insert sarcasm emoji*


Watching Requiem for a Dream is emotionally taxing, but that's why its message works. A rehabilitation facility in New Jersey even recommends the film as one of the most realistic portrayals of the consequences of drug abuse ever. (Source)

One thing is for sure: after watching Requiem, you'll definitely need to follow our Tappy Tibbons-inspired Three Rules For Post-Requiem-Viewing Success. They involve at least an hour of kitten-or-sloth based YouTube videos, a cozy comforter, and a mug of herbal tea.

What is Requiem for a Dream About and Why Should I Care?

We know, we know. This is the point at which you thought we'd go full after-school-special on you and say something like, "Newsflash, kiddos! Drugs are bad!"

And obviously: drugs are bad. But you know that: you've just finished watching Requiem for a Dream. This movie is many (brilliant) things, but it is not subtle about showing you the very real nightmarescape of the consequences of drug addiction.

Forget "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs." Requiem says, "This is your arm. This is your arm on drugs." Lesson learned.

So why should you watch a movie about peoples' lives being derailed as a consequence of drugs if drugs = bad isn't the takeaway?

Because while Aranofsky ain't subtle about showing you the effects of drugs on arms, sanity, and dignity, he is subtle about showing you one of the root causes of addiction.

Sara Goldfarb says it best:

SARA: It's a reason to get up in the morning. It's a reason to lose weight. […] It's a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got, Harry? Why should I even make the bed or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I'm alone. […] I'm lonely. I'm old.

And here's the thing: she's not talking about her addiction to nutso diet pills. She's talking about her addiction to the dream of being on TV. Because Requiem knows that the dream of a better life—a life without loneliness, aging, depression, or apathy—can be so strong that we're tempted to take shortcuts to turn that dream into reality.

Enter: addiction. And that addiction can be anything from drugs to food to sex to the internet. It's super seductive to use something—anything—to mask the pain of just being a person in the world. Because being a person in the world is so. crazy. difficult.

Requiem has the (grim) honor of topping lists like "10 Incredibly Depressing Movies That Will Crush Your Soul." But that's not because Requiem shows rotten arms and electroshock's because Requiem shows how a dream of a pain-and-sadness-free-life can lead to Very Bad Things.

And we can all understand this, because everyone in the world has dreamed of a life without sadness and pain. We can understand the characters in Requiem…because we all know how nasty and bleaktastic life can be.

You won't come out of a viewing of Requiem for a Dream with a) much of an appetite or b) a desire to visit New York City in midwinter. But you will come out of this film with enhanced empathy. And that's about as good as it gets.


Requiem for a Dream isn't a movie you want to see with your mom, but Aronofsky put his mom in the movie. When the old ladies line up their lawn chairs on the sidewalk, she's the second from the right. His dad plays one of the jerks on the subway. (Source)

Another cameo comes from the author of Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby, Jr. He gets to yell at his own characters as the abusive prison guard at the end of the movie. It's like if JK Rowling played Dolores Umbridge and got to smack Harry around. (Source)

Tappy Tibbons's advice includes not eating red meat or sugar or having sex for ninety days. To get the feeling of what it's like to go through withdrawals themselves, Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans abstained from both for three months. (Source)

Requiem for a Dream Resources


We're not sure what's more shocking, this movie, or the fact that Tripod still exists.

An Internet Odyssey
Darren Aronofsky has been too busy to update his website, which is so 2001.

Book or TV Adaptations

Booquiem for a Dream
Thanks to the movie's popularity, the 1978 novel is still in print, with Jared Leto on the cover boosting sales.

Articles and Interviews

System of a Down
While the characters are trying to get things into their systems, Aronofsky said he had to do this movie to get it out of his system.

Mama's Boy
Marlon Wayans called his mom while working on the movie. No reason to wait until Mother's Day.

Rehab Research
They didn't have to make Jennifer Connelly go to rehab. She said yes, yes, yes when doing research for her role.


No Escape
Jared Leto warns you to not see this movie if you're looking for an escape.

Cubby Hole
If you learn only one thing from this interview with Hubert Selby Jr, it's that his nickname is "Cubby."


Survival Instincts
How did Cubby get the name Cubby? Cubby reveals it to Terri Gross on Fresh Air.

Post-Traumatic Soundtrack Disorder
The Requiem soundtrack is maybe not the best thing to play at your next birthday party.


Armed and Dangerous
If you need a hand designing a poster, check out this artist, who reimagines Requiem's poster with style.

Pill-Poppin' Mama
This grim poster perfectly illustrates Sara's mentality.

The Many Faces of Evil
Is this poster supposed to be creepier than the movie?

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