If there’s one movie that’s capable of scaring people away from drug use, it’s Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. It was more than just a movie about addiction. It was a psychological drama about mental health, isolation, and the human condition. It’s not easy to sit through, but every second is mesmerizing.
It did well with critics when it was first released, but the movie continues to gain followers each year. Maybe it’s because no movie has been able to tackle the subject in such a harrowing way. While no movie has been able to successfully replicate everything Requiem for a Dream does right, there have been plenty of movies capable of scratching a similar itch.
The following ten movies are not exclusively about drug addiction. While looking for which films most fit the bill, plenty of things were taken into consideration. The aforementioned themes regarding mental health, isolation, and the human condition also factor into whether or not a movie could be considered comparable to Aronofsky’s anxiety-induced masterpiece.
Other factors, such as the visual style and editing techniques were also taken into consideration. Note that in order for some comparisons to be made, there may be mild spoilers. None of these spoilers should be particularly mind-blowing, but they exist nonetheless.
Trainspotting is the other drug movie people can’t stop talking about. When you look up lists about best drug movies, both Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting usually sit somewhere near the top. The high positions on these lists are absolutely warranted. Requiem for a Dream is a gritty movie about addiction that will leave you feeling hopeless by the time the credits roll. Trainspotting is a much lighter affair that strongly contrasts the bleak realism of Requiem for a Dream.
The differences in tone result in movies that complement each other. They both take on the subject of drug addiction, but they do so in different ways. Trainspotting shows drug use in a way that’s more grounded while Requiem for a Dream depicts drug use in a more stylized fashion.
Requiem for a Dream wants to show viewers the more extreme consequences associated with drug use while Trainspotting is more interested in showing people the smaller issues that come with using drugs. Trainspotting gives viewers a cast of highly charismatic guys while Requiem for a Dream gives viewers emotionally damaged characters.
The two movies are obviously very different, so why is Trainspotting such an integral part of this list? When making a list like this, it’s not always about finding the movie that’s the most similar.
Trainspotting deserves a spot on this list because it’s both similar and refreshing. It does things that Requiem for a Dream is unable to accomplish, while Requiem for a Dream is able to achieve success in different areas. Both are comparable for various reasons though. They have enough in common to warrant a comparison. If you loved one film, you’ll likely love the other, even if the two films fill different roles.
2. Heaven Knows What
Kenji Fujishima of Slant Magazine said that Heaven Knows What was “one of the most harrowing cinematic depictions of drug addiction in recent memory.” Honestly, there’s no better way to describe it. The Safdie brothers essentially put together a drug-themed horror movie that rivals Requiem for a Dream in terms of grit and realism.
The cast and crew came together to create a film that depicts the most horrifying aspects of addiction. The raw intensity of the film likely had filmgoers wondering if the people involved had a mentor to tutor them on how to make a movie about heroin addiction.
Those people would be right in their suspicions. Heaven Knows What feels so real because in many ways it is real. The star of the film, Arielle Holmes, was tasked with writing a story based around her life as a heroin addict living on the streets of New York. This story was eventually turned into a film featuring a cast made up of mostly non-actors. A large percentage of the cast had the opportunity to play slightly modified versions of themselves.
One would think this approach to telling Arielle’s story would come across as gimmicky, but instead it greatly benefits the final product. Despite the fact that the cast members have no experience when it comes to acting, everyone is able to pull their weight. In particular, Holmes is incredible.
In one of the greatest breakthrough performances of 2015, Arielle Holmes presents viewers with a character with countless layers. She never feels like she’s putting on a show because in a lot of ways, she isn’t. Holmes shows people who she is, for better or worse.
The performances are surprisingly top notch, the sense of realism is admirable, and the somber portrayal of addiction is compelling. Heaven Knows What is one of the most underrated movies of the decade so far. It’s the closest we’ve ever been to finding “the next Requiem for a Dream.” It’s not an exact replica, but it has its own surprises to keep people engaged.
3. The Panic in Needle Park
The Panic in Needle Park was one of the first movies to tackle heroin addiction in a way that was raw and impactful. This 1971 drama presents a grim look into the life a drug-addicted couple who hang out in a public park nicknamed Needle Park. The two hour runtime is devoted to showing viewers the downward spirals of both a longtime addict and somebody who is newly introduced to the drug.
Similar to Requiem for a Dream, this film does not off a flattering depiction of drug addiction. Surprisingly, a good chunk of movies about addiction tend to take a more comedic route. Movies like Spun and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are frequently entertaining, but they have a tendency to gloss over some of the more serious issues attributed to drug use.
The Panic in Needle Park doesn’t focus on how much fun the protagonists are having. Instead, it seeks to show viewers the consequences associated with long-term drug use. Similar to some of the darker entries on this list, this movie is not always easy to watch. The two main characters are constantly running into problems that will make you cringe. However, these are very real problems, so it’s admirable to see a movie take these kinds of risks.
In some ways, the movie has begun to show its age. Comparable movies released more recently depict heroin addiction in a more fascinating way. The Panic in Needle Park isn’t as intense as Requiem for a Dream or as realistic as Heaven Knows What, but it’s still a phenomenal look at the subject considering the fact that it’s nearing fifty years old. For those seeking to watch a darker movie about addiction, this one is certainly worth a look.
4. On the Outs
On the Outs has fewer than 1,000 votes on IMDb, so to say it’s a hidden gem is a bit of an understatement. The movie is so under-the-radar that it couldn’t even manage to get a Blu Ray release years after it initially came to theaters.
Basically, it came out, picked up a couple Independent Spirit Award nominations, and disappeared into obscurity. Considering the critical reception, it’s a shame that more people haven’t seen On the Outs. It’s a surprisingly complex little drama film that’s capable of hypnotizing even the most narcissistic viewers.
The movie follows a similar structure to that of Requiem for a Dream. It follows the lives of multiple characters who all deal with similar struggles. One is a pregnant teenager, one is a teenage drug dealer trying to support her brother, and one is a drug addict.
The film takes turns showing snippets from each of their lives until the three women finally connect toward the beginning of the third act. This sort of anthology set-up wasn’t invented by Requiem for a Dream, but it certainly allows for comparisons to be made.
This is especially true considering the subject matter. Presenting the story as an anthology is one thing. Presenting the story as an anthology surrounding three damaged characters whose lives are all affected by drugs is another thing. Though only one character is actually addicted to drugs, every character is in some way associated with drugs. The three stories told within the film show the various ways that drugs can change a person’s life. Sound familiar?
It has enough of its own idea to warrant a watch. Though it gives off a very dated “early 2000s” vibe, the themes are timeless nonetheless. Finding a physical copy of the movie is fairly tough. Luckily, technology has evolved to the point where renting the movie on something like Amazon Instant Video is only a couple clicks away. On the Outs hasn’t aged as gracefully as some of the other movies on this list, but it still manages to feature a little something for everybody.
5. The Basketball Diaries
Think of The Basketball Diaries as Requiem’s more approachable older brother. The two siblings are very similar, but The Basketball Diaries didn’t go through the same type of hipster phase.
Metaphors aside, The Basketball Diaries is basically a tamer look at heroin addiction. It still seeks to teach many of the same lessons, but it does so in a way that’s more appealing to a mainstream audience. Requiem for a Dream is by no means a movie specifically aimed at the art crowd. However, the wild editing techniques, overlapping stories, and disturbing content are guaranteed to scare some people away.
That’s where this movie comes into play. It feels like a training course for Requiem for a Dream. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a significantly worse movie. It simply means that it approaches a similar subject in a way that’s not quite as surreal. This approach results in a movie that can feel more focused than Aronofsky’s movie. The trade-off is that it also can feel uninspired, especially compared to the countless addiction movies that followed.
This basically means that if you’re looking for a movie that matches Requiem for a Dream’s level of bat-shit intensity, you’re better off skipping this one. If, however, you’re on board for something slightly more formulaic, this movie may surprise you. Not only does it offer a realistic glimpse into the horrors of drug addiction, but it also features one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first great roles. It’s a quieter movie, but it’s also a movie with its own merits.