film reviews · Requiem for a Dream

Why Requiem for a Dream is Better than a PSA

The first time I watched Requiem for a Dream I cried.

It was my fault, really. I thought that I could handle the content; I also wanted to get over with the viewing experience.

The first time I saw Requiem, I started the film late at night. By the time I finished,  which was about one or two in the morning, I was in ragged tears.

While this film is harsh and unpredictable, I found it way more effective than any of the PSA films I had seen in junior high or high school about drug use. (Although, to be fair, at the time those poorly acted films and decent documentaries scared me into not wanting to experiment with drugs or any other illegal substances.)

Even now, at the age of almost 24, I still have no desire to get high or wasted just for the fun of it. I have an overactive imagination, and so I have no need for engaging in illegal behavior. In any case, I’ve also seen enough television and films that happen to feature people getting high or drunk to know that while it may feel awesome at the time, in reality, you’re killing off important brain cells. Or putting yourself, or others, possibly at risk.

Fortunately, I have friends who aren’t all that into partying or clubbing. I’m not saying that partying or clubbing is bad, I’m just saying that those kinds of activities aren’t for me. I prefer to have small, safe parties with my group of nerdy poetry/English/Psychology friends.

The important thing, overall, is to be safe when you go out drinking, etc. In Requiem, there is no sense of safety. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and Harry’s friend Tyrone will use heroin without fearing the long-term effects. Their only objection is to get high, and stay high for as long as possible. Sara, Harry’s mother, also becomes addicted to her weight loss amphetamine pills in the hopes of speeding up her body’s ability to lose weight.

Unlike most films that feature drug usage, the director Darren Aronofsky took a different approach, one that posed the question of what is a drug?

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.

– from the Wikipedia page

Unlike Public Service Announcements, which tell the audience in a very cut-and-dry way that drugs are bad and you shouldn’t touch them, Requiem for a Dream doesn’t reference any of the drugs that the main characters are taking. Instead, the audience is shown the downward spiral of these four individuals–two women and two men–and how their lives gradually change from independent of drugs to dependent on drugs. (This is more so the case with Sara and her addiction to weight loss pills.)

There’s a huge difference between showing and telling. If done well, PSA’s can be very effective. But if done poorly, a PSA will not impact the audience as it intended.

I believe that Requiem for a Dream is more effective than a PSA because of the realistic narrative, which is daring enough to show instead of just telling the audience what can happen if you or someone you care about messes with illegal substances. The plight of each of the main characters is gripping, as well as memorably gritty. One scene in particular that sticks out to me is Sara fiercely cleaning her apartment, high as a kite, unable to sit still for even a few minutes.

The first few seconds are of Marion and Harry doing heroin. The rest is of Sara cleaning her apartment:

I haven’t read the book. But I might, someday.


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