At the end of “Requiem for a Dream,” all four protagonists are, essentially, in hell. Aronofsky designs the movie in such a way as to build to the darkest possible moment in each character’s life, interweaving those moments frantically to achieve an indelible horror movie payoff. Sara is submitted to forced ECT and becomes numb. Marion is degraded by a den of sexual sociopaths. Harry and Tyrone are arrested and find themselves all alone in the world.
For Harry, the nightmare is compounded by the amputation of his gangrenous left arm. For Tyrone, meanwhile, hell is a lot less over-the-top. Facing withdrawal while being put through the grind of prison life is a depressing enough fate, but, to rise Tyrone’s denouement to the surrounding level of hysteric horror, Aronofsky also has him be verbally and physically berated by racist prison guards, who call him a “dope fiend n*****” in between punches, and force him to “learn some manners.”
While it is true that U.S. prisons are known for being horrifying, flagrantly racist environments, that sequence sticks out like a sore thumb. Most of “Requiem” wisely avoids realism and goes instead for emotional acuity. Sara’s and Marion’s scenes are not offensive, because their horror is nearly expressionistic. But in a film with little room for social commentary, the racism Tyrone experiences is ultimately reduced to another stop in the shock value train. It’s a callous treatment for a subject that demands to be handled responsibly.