What is a Drug?: Aronofsky, Requiem for a Dream and Idolatry

Ob•sess: to haunt or excessively preoccupy the mind of.

-Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary


Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to obsession. The acclaimed director of Black Swan, The Wrestler, and the indie film that put him on the map, Pi, weaves the theme of obsession into his scripts. His characters are often haunted by something intangible or unattainable. Whether it’s Nina Sayers (Black Swan, 2010) trying to give the perfect ballet performance, Noah (Noah, 2014) searching for the creator’s ultimate plan in the midst of destruction, or Tom Creo’s (The Fountain, 2005) quest to prevent death, Aronofsky’s tales of fixation  have us asking the same thingwhat is obsession?

Obsession is a multifaceted. Take a graphic designer. Sketching all day, designs daily, calling potential clients, reads and digests the latest manuals. We’d say he’s driven. Or a high schooler who keeps DMing a classmate for a date, maybe infatuated. Or if I order a Sprecher Cherry Cola everyday, apparently that’s an “addiction,” and “I have a problem.” We’re all different types of obsessed. Some good, some bad.

Really bad.

That’s the kind we see in Aronofsky’s universe. No film better illustrates the dark void of obsession than Requiem for a Dream (2000).

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Based off the the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., and a screenplay by him and Aronofsky. The picture earned an estimated $7.4 million off a $4.5 million budget (Golden for independent film, Not My Big Fat Greek Wedding gold, but gold nonetheless). The film went on to receive over 60 nominations, including Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Sara Goldfarb.

The film revolves around four characters, each ailed by a drug addiction. Harry Goldfarb and Tyrone Love (played by Jared Leto and Marion Wayans, respectively) are heroin addicts ready to start peddling the product. Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) is Harry’s girlfriend, heroin addict, and aspiring designer. And last, Sara Goldfarb, Harry’s estranged mother, who spends her days watching infomercials, occasionally leaving the house to mingle with the ladies perched outside.

Requiem looks at the function the drug plays in the lives of these characters. Aronofsky himself wasn’t convinced he was directing a status quo portrayal of the the dangers of American drug culture, quoted in Salon (2000), saying:

Requiem for a Dream is not about heroin or about drugs. The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, what is a drug?’ The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person’s head when they’re trying to quit drugs, as with cigarettes, as when they’re trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. I thought it was an idea that we hadn’t seen on film and I wanted to bring it up on the screen.”

We could argue that this inner monologue is the dream. Or more accuratelythe American Dream. The images in Requiem often to point to an unattainable vision of what has traditional been deemed the “American Dream.”

Sara Goldfarb watches Tappy Tibbons, infomercial/game show. Any person can get their shot, win an expensive car or a lifetime supply of staple food products (Rice-a-Roni anyone?). Or win the best prize of allbeing on the show.

Image result for requiem for a dream

Then there is Harry, Tyrone, and Marion. The drug runners. Addicts who get in the game themselves. This is still the nose to the grindstone work that provides until each of them moves on up. They still have obligations and higher aspirations. Tyrone has his girlfriend to provide for. Harry wants to give his Mom a better T.V. (after pawning hers for a quick score, times over), and Marion wants to design clothes, and for awhile, does when business is good, yet never moves to go legit.

The ability to move illegal goods, make money, and retire early is as much the American Dream as Leave It to Beaver, if the Eddie Haskell were a mule and Ward Cleaver the Kingpin.

Like many cautionary drug tales, Aronofsky’s subjects spiral and lose control. Harry and Tyrone  use too much of their own product. Marion in turn can’t get her fix, and thus begins sleeping with her therapist to earn money, ultimately prostituting to score. And Sara Goldfarb enters an amphetamine psychosis, losing touch with reality.

Their obsession with the life they desire leads them to ruin. Harry’s arm is amputated from over-use of needles. Tyrone is taken to prison. Marion leads the life of addict-prostitute. Sara is left to shock treatments. Each muddled by their obsession with a life unlived.

But this isn’t a “drugs are bad children” kind of movie. Far from it.

The heroin and amphetamines and money all serve a higher function. They make everything better, and give the characters what they want. They think.

See, the brilliance of Aronofsky, and this film, is that he asks, “what drives us?” The American Dream? Money? Fame? White picket fences or Rice-a-Roni? It goes deeper. To understand this negative obsession, we need to look at idolatry.

Idolatry isn’t just an ancient religious practice. In fact, I’d argue it’s at the heart of these characters’ psychology. Theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins asserts the Idol is anything we think will make us whole. In The Idolatry of God, Rollins writes an idol can be sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as easily as it can be religion, church, or a 365-day prayer journal. Idols don’t make us whole though. The person we’re infatuated with, or the hot new electronic we fixate on rarely end up being as great as we think.

The thing we thought would fill us is damned empty.  And in turn, we’re empty.

We stay empty until we’re able to name the problem. Rollins uses the example of an alcoholic. Often times the drinking is not the problem, but rather a solution. AA isn’t just the breaking of the habit, but the tools to confront, clarify, and live with the problem that caused it, be it broken relationships, a bad childhood, or unspeakable tragedy.

The fix isn’t to stop drinking, substituting all night, KISS-like bingers for cigarettes or trips to the gym or Joel Osteen seminars. but uncovering why were you drinking in the first place. This can apply to people that aren’t drug addicts. There are plenty of people living, and I quote, “normal” and “successful” lives. Working honest 9-to-5 jobs and climbing the corporate ladder can be idolatry and a solution as much as cocaine.

Jim Carrey is quoted as saying, “I wish everyone could become rich and famous, so they’d see that it’s not the answer to anything.” Idols rarely give everything they claim to offer.

For Harry, Tyrone, Marion, and Sara, they are chasing things without any answers. They drive themselves into the ground. Aronofsky drops breadcrumbs for us to follow, and none is more telling than The Red Dress scene.

“I like how I look.”

“I like the red dress.”

Sara likes the distractions. To look away from the T.V. screen would be to come face-to-face with her problems:

“I’m lonely . . . I’m old.”

And pills take care of that. They give her a reason to wake up in the morning.

Obsession is a haunting. It lurks. And in this film, it is a voice telling these characters they can have their dreams come true. The pill or needle or sum of money will fix your problems. But the problems of Sara or Harry or Marion or Tyrone are beyond a pill. Their dream is the solution to the things they won’t name. Obsession can  drive us towards an idol. And the harder we chase a false, dangerous idol, the more often we will be left curled up and unfulfilled.

So, this is how Requiem for a Dream ends: an overhead shot of each character curled up. Sara in a mental ward. Harry in the hospital. Tyrone in prison. And Marion on her couch, holding onto the small score of heroin and a satisfied grin.

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