Drugs, Dreams, and Disconnect: Requiem for a Dream
Updated: May 15
Final Paper for Film Theory, GWU (2018)
Addiction is a debilitating and confusing disease; it can result in isolation, loss of identity, and an overall disconnect from reality. An addict’s attempts at achievement and human connection, both fundamental aspects of human nature, are often disrupted. This is further examined in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (Thousand Words). The film follows four characters — Harry, Sally, Marion, and Ty — as they struggle to balance their pursuit of dreams with engaging in human connection and battling with drug addiction. Aronofsky best executes this struggle through the use of split screens, a film technique often used to depict multiple shots simultaneously for the audience. Through the use of split screens along with his abandonment of the tool in the film’s final scene, Aronofsky creates a film that illuminates the characters’ endless cycle of desire for human connection, the drive for achieving one’s dreams, and the debilitating struggle of drug addiction that disrupts this process entirely. Ultimately, the struggle to end this cycle leaves the characters yearning for what they can’t have
In the film’s initial scene, a split screen divides Harry and his mother on opposing sides of a locked door. The use of a divided screen introduces the characters simultaneously, and acting as their true selves. Fueled by the impulses of his drug use, Harry’s attempt to steal his mother’s television set as a means for payment displays his allegiance to his habits, rather than a relationship with his mother. “Why you gotta make me feel so guilty, Ma,” Harry yells through the locked door. As an addict, Harry sees his actions as justified, and anyone opposing him as an enemy. Harry’s reliance on drugs has lead him to think only in instances of short term: how can he get more money? Why won’t his mother speak to him? He is too indulged in the needs of substances that he struggles to pursue his dreams or desires.
Just as her son is addicted to drugs, Sara is addicted to her television. Harry’s cold attitudes towards her, and him stealing her TV leave Sara without her drug and without human connection. Helpless and disconnected, Sara’s pursuit of Harry’s affection leaves her trapped behind a door she locked herself, watching her son through the keyhole. “The chain isn’t for you, it’s for the robbers,” Sara says to Harry, sliding the key under the door. Despite the darkened tones casting a shadow of confusion around Sara’s face, and despite her deluded perception of who she thinks is stealing the television set, Sara’s pleas are only meant to convince herself of the situation. She so desperately craves her son’s love and appraisal that she is willing to abandon her sense of self and sacrifice her addiction for him.
Despite being beside one another in vulnerable and sensual positions, the split screen found in Harry and Marion’ sex scene portrays an internal struggle that is driving the characters deeper into their own minds, rather than closer towards one another. “I always thought you were the most beautiful girl I’ve
ever seen,” Harry tells Marion, without breaking eye contact, to which Marion replies, “That’s nice, Harry.” It is clear that Harry cares for Marion more than she does for him. Harry strokes her lips and caresses her hands, movements most closely associated with love and connection. Meanwhile, Marion rubs Harry’s back and legs, representing a fear to truly get close to him. Harry’s yearn to grow closer to Marion is the simplest example of human nature, as he feels a need to connect and love her. The two are desperately trying to find love and pursue their dreams (Harry wants to be wealthy and powerful, Marion wants to be a fashion designer). But Harry’s drive for power is causing him to see Marion as a prize for his achievements and dreams. Marion sees Harry as something new, an impulsive decision in which drugs are the catalyst. Marion and Harry’s relationship quickly becomes dependent on drugs, causing the two to associate love, affection, and success with drugs. This foreshadows the state of isolation and loss of identity that the characters will eventually fall into, as their relationship falters from connection and encourages drug use and impulsivity.
The subtle lines that make this scene split-screen divide the bed in half which the characters are laying on. The scene remains like this for awhile, with the two keeping eye contact, bodies positioned towards one another, and with equal lighting throughout. Upon initial viewing, the two seem to connect both on a physical and emotional level, but subtle shifts throughout the scene suggest Harry and Marion have ulterior motives in their actions, rather than a simple desire to be intimate.
The split-screen begins with Harry and Marion at eye level with one another. Slowly and unsuspectingly, the right side of the screen shifts upward slightly, resulting in a distinct separation
between the characters that could only be portrayed through the split screen method. In one shot, Harry reaches out toward Marion on his side of the screen, but the slight shift of the camera creates a sense of disconnect as his arm is shown on the opposite side of the screen, slightly duller and paler in light, reaching towards Marion from an unknown location. The eye contact between the two is intense and lasts throughout the scene, but the eye line levels are interrupted by the shift in Marion’s shot. The black line that separates the two, or rather, the disconnect in their altered minds, are furthering their own isolation without the characters themselves recognizing it. Although the two have found the connection they need, they are left wanting more than what they have.
Aronofsky’s use of the split screen to separate Harry and Ty ingesting drugs is different than the rest, in that the images seen on the screen are identical. The shots remain the same on the left and right side of the screen: from cooking the heroin, to shooting it up, to the dilation of each of their pupils. In this instance, the split of the screen depicts drugs as a catalyst for desiring human connection and pursuing one’s dreams. The images on either side of the screen remain the same because the drugs only fuel the cycle of human nature, however the symptoms and effects are not individual.
Both Harry and Ty recognize their desire for power and success, and encourage one another. But their obligations to their addictions take precedence over these things. Harry and Ty find solace in their connection with one another, and comfort in doing drugs with one another. The problem arises when the two are together, most often high, they do little in achieving their dreams. The ability to achieve one’s dreams, remain connected to others, andindulge in drugs is difficult to obtain. While Harry and Ty remain content in their lives for the moment, when the drugs leave their system they are left attempting to fulfill as many as these three goals as they can.
A powerful scene from Requiem For a Dream comes when Sara, visibly plagued by paranoia, sits side by side with a diminishing plate of prescribed amphetamines. Instead of her addiction driving her further from her friends, Sara’s habits are isolating her from herself promoting the loss of her identity. She remains the most popular of all her friends, and is seeing results in her weight loss, but at what cost? The pills were only meant to stimulate weight loss, allowing Sara to wear her favorite red dress for a television game show appearance. “Oh, I remember how he looked at me in that red dress,” Sara later tells Harry, regarding her reason for taking the amphetamines. For Sara, taking the pills is an attempt to gain affection, love, and respect. The red dress is a reminder of who she once was, and all that she didn’t accomplish.
Because Harry is dealing with his own addictions and faltering mind, Sara feels as though she is no longer connected with anyone. Her juvenile friendships with the ladies on the block, who deem her as their “leader” after losing weight, are a false projection of connection that Sara falls into. While Sara began taking the drugs to return to the previous person she once was, she loses sense of who she currently is. This lack of identity, further intensified by her drug abuse, leaves Sara in need of everything she once had, and without anything she wants.
In contrast, the pills on the opposite side of the split screen are logical. “Purple in the morning, blue in the afternoon, red in the evening,” Sara reads on the prescription note. This rational, routine thinking is not intuitive of what the audience has seen thus far. Sara seems to have connections through friends and family, and control of her substance use, but is lacking the achievement of a larger dream. This differs from the other three characters, who are struggling to deal with all aspects of the ‘cycle’. Sara struggles to recognize why she went on the pills in the first place: were they to lose weight to fit into her dress or are they are larger catalyst to fame and mass appreciation? While she has a grasp on reality, Sara’s inability to give up her dreams is driving her towards insanity and solitude.
During the movie’s final scenes, Aronofsky furthers the conflicts that envelope as he abandons the split screen to portray the four characters in unsettling, dividing, and lonesome environments. Each of the four characters find themselves in situations that contradict what they were hoping for throughout the film.
Harry’s arm, once a vehicle for stealing and transporting his mother’s television set across Staten Island, is amputated after developing an infection from a unclean heroin needle. “A little stuff will take care of that,” Harry says, feeling that it is more important to drive to Florida and obtain drugs for Marion than care for his own well being. He is no longer motivated by wealth and success, but rather by pleasing Marion. Harry spent the film succumbing to the chains of addiction in an attempt to pursue his dreams of success and wealth, only to discover he had Marion, someone who loved him, beside him the entire time.
Sara, no longer in her right mind, ends up in a hospital receiving shock therapy. A doctor counts down “one, two, three,” before administering the shock. This counting mimics Sara’s counting of the pills in a previously discussed scene. This repetition of counting is reflective of Sara’s organized and logical identity. By the end of the film, however, the shock causes Sara to lose the parts of herself she was so desperately trying to fill. Despite her appraisal of the amphetamines throughout the film, and a loving group of friends, Sara remains alone and unable to wear her red dress, or gain the affection of Harry for that matter. Her obsession with something that could not be obtained lead her to abandon all that she already had.
Marion, who once yearned for love and connection, remains alone in a darkened home with little furniture. Rather than attaining the former, she is left with everything she feared, despite her extreme attempts to prevent such loneliness. Her dreams of becoming a fashion designer are further paralleled, as the end scene shows her naked body performing sexual acts in front of a room of men. Rather than creating clothes to empower women, Marion is stripped of her integrity. The vulnerability and emptiness Marion feels from this scene causes her to lose her sense of self with her only intention being to obtain more money for drugs. Perhaps caught in the worst cycle, Marion must abandon all that she has tried to achieve in order to start her life over again.
An earlier scene in the film shows Ty, active and healthy, dominating a girl in bed. Throughout the film, Ty talk about wanting to get out of Staten Island and become successful, and powerful. Though he had good intentions, his idea to sell drugs as a means for success and wealth backfired, as he ends up in prison. “God damn New York dope fiend niggers,” a guard screams at Ty. Despite his best efforts in breaking out of his identity as a poor, black man from Staten Island, Ty is even more emasculated and powerless than before.
By ceasing the split screens and instead imposing quick shots of each character, Aronofsky shows that the characters have completely isolated themselves. When a line separated them on screen, they were in emotional limbo, clinging to the last threads of connectivity; now in the final scenes, the characters face their darkest moments, driven by impulse and desire, they are seen alone and abandoned, only to crave the connection they once had. Their four stories display the struggle for connection, dreams, and self-control found throughout the film. This is the hypocrisy of human nature: It is hardest to see what we possess when we are indulged in that possession. The cycle of trying to maintain love, dreams, and aspirations, drives individuals further from one another, and further into one’s own perceived reality. An unnatural interruption to this human nature, such as drugs, for example, leaves one constantly in search of something more.