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“Requiem for a Dream” by Darren Aronofsky Review Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021


Criminal and deviant behavior is characterized by socially undesirable behavior patterns and actions that threaten other individuals and social morals. The film selected for analysis, ‘Requiem for a Dream by Darren Aronofsky, depicts the deviant behavior of four protagonists faced with difficult life situations and problems. The main characters, Sara and her son Harry Goldfarb, Marion Silver and Tyrone, all exhibit socially undeniable behavior patterns caused by different life circumstances, class location, and personal values. The aim of the paper is to analyze and describe their behavior using two criminological theories, anomie theory or strain theory (Robert Merton) and conflict theory.

Anomie Theory

Robert Merton based its anomie theory (strain theory) on Emily Durkheim’s findings. According to Merton, “anomie is the form that societal incoherence takes when there is a significant detachment “between valued cultural ends and legitimate societal means to those ends” (Akers, 2000, p. 143, 161 cited Collins n.d.). Similar to Durkheim, Merton states that if anomie is a breakdown in society, then it is a breakdown in all that he says society is equivalent to (morality, reality, experience, and ideas). Merton explains that society becomes an observable factual order caused by morality, the latter being an analytically distinct kind of order consisting of norms and values that people respect. Following Merton:

“Anomie becomes the explanation for high rates of deviant behavior in the U.S. compared with other societies, and also an explanation for the distribution of deviant behavior across groups defined by class, race, ethnicity, and the like” (Merton n.d.).

Applied to the movie, anomie theory will help to explain the behavior and criminal actions of the main characters. For instance, the life of Sara and her son Harry Goldfarb differs from other individuals and their norms. Sara is a housewife who does nothing but watches TV serials. Harry is a heroin addict who does not take much care of his elderly mother. In terms of Anomie theory,

“Incentives for success are provided by the established values of the culture, and second, the avenues available for moving toward this goal are largely limited by the class structure to those of deviant behavior. It is the combination of the cultural emphasis and the social structure which produces intense pressure for deviation” (Merton n.d.).

The life of Sara and her son Harry is limited by their class and is shaped by the combination of cultural factors such as TV serials and melodramas, false ideals, and values. Harry and Tyrone become drug dealers to earn for living. In this case, they violate social rules and norms accepted by society. These actions can be seen as ‘strains’ that shape the deviant behavior and values of people. “Strain is the pressure on disadvantaged minority groups and the lower urban populous to take advantage of any effective available means to income and success” (Akers, 2000, p. 144 cited Collins n.d.). Morality and social facts are identical things. One of the ways that people are recalled to collective morality is through the ritual identification of whoever the most “extreme” violators are and judging the status of their behavior (through arrest and trial or other forms of deviance recognition). Another character, Marion, does not violate social rules, but she is occasionally involved in criminal situations. For instance, Harry forces Marion to have sex with the therapist to earn some money for the supply of drugs.

The film suggests that the twofold reason for why crime is normal and why it cannot be eliminated: (1) whatever specific behavior is eliminated, something would still be the most extreme behavior vis-à-vis the collective conscience and would-be crime, and (2) this recruitment from the fringe for trial and punishment is crucial for the maintenance of social order and the avoidance o anomie (Eagly 2004, p. 82). In Merton’s theory, conformity is not only not required but not possible. If it were possible, there would be nothing inherently destabilizing in the elimination of crime, nor would crime be necessary and theoretically inevitable. This theory requires the possibility of conformity to morality. “According to General Strain Theory, as aspirations increase and expectations decline, delinquency and the number of deviant acts that occur increases in effect to these changes” (Collins n.d.). In ‘Requiem for a Dream, the aspirations of the characters increase, but they cannot fulfill their dreams and desires. Crime is conceived not as an impossibility but only in the violation of social rules. Certain behavior really is conformity; anything else is a violation (Eagly, 2004). This imagery articulates with the “rules,” “for if we are to view the collective conscience as something one could conceivably conform to deductively, naturally its most promising characterization would be a “body of rules.” (Lanier and Henry 1997, p. 52). In any case, Merton’s theory does not require that imagery, nor does his moral regulation require conformity as most people commonly think of conformity (Lanier and Henry, 1997).

Conflict Theory

The conflict theory (Karl Marx, Max Weber) defines that conflict in society is inevitable because of different social and personal norms and antagonism (Lanier and Henry, 1997). The definition of conflict offered here implies that conflict behavior can occur not only because the parties have incompatible goals but also because they feel hostility toward each other. In ‘Requiem for Dreams,’ most acts driven by emotions such as anger tend to be spontaneous and quick and often at odds with what a more careful deliberation might suggest. For instance, Sara dreams of taking part in one of her favorite shows, but she does not take into account social circumstances and situations. Also, when Harry becomes severely injected, the doctor does not give him medical care when he discovers that he is a drug addict. In this film, the relationship between hostility and conflict behavior is complex. On the one hand, hostility adds fuel to and intensifies conflict behavior. Conflict also intensifies hostility: as conflict continues and the parties inflict injuries on each other, the participants are no longer motivated solely by a desire to reach their original goals; increasingly, they become determined to destroy the enemy. The nature of conflict is thus transformed (Lanier and Henry, 1997). Conflict can be defined here as “a situation in which actors use conflict behavior against each other to attain incompatible goals and/or to express their hostility” (Lanier and Henry 1997, p. 82). It seems that the main characters express hostility towards society, its norms, and values. The behavior can be interpreted as ‘conflict’ because it helps the party to achieve its goal that is incompatible with that of the opponent or that expresses its hostility toward him or her (Vold et al. 2001).

In terms of social conflict theory, Sara, Harry and Tyrone fight about a bewildering variety of things: about money, about land, about children, about infidelity, about politics (Weber 1947 cited Cullen and Agnew 2007). Harry and Tyrone, street gang members, constantly strive to gain a reputation for being tough and fearless, often by such acts as drive-by shootings. Often, there is conflict within a gang as young members try to show that they are tougher than their current leader. Gang leadership and drug dealers can change rapidly and often. Similarly, movie or rock stars are adored by their fans for only short periods of time, being soon displaced by new idols. If the distribution of wealth, prestige, and power is – and is believed to be – unjust, those treated unjustly will desire to get more than they are currently receiving. This creates incompatible goals: the privileged wish to maintain the status quo, the underprivileged to change it to their advantage. But there are at least two reasons why the theory of distributive justice alone might not account adequately for what is viewed as fair and just (Siegel, 2006).

For Sara and Marion, society assigns different roles to different positions within the power hierarchy. This differentiation occurs within both social institutions and groups: parents have power over their children, ministers over their parishioners, managers over workers, government officials over citizens. Sara takes prescribed drugs trying to diet but is hospitalized. Marion becomes a prostitute forced by her drug dealer. An important reason why different individuals have incompatible goals is that they, be they individuals or groups – value themselves much more highly than others value them (Vold et al. 2001). They feel that they are not fully appreciated by others, that they are not receiving their due. This deviant behavior occurred as a result of several developments happening more or less simultaneously, such as industrialization and urbanization, population growth and mobility, and technological advances – especially in communication and transportation. These changes made it possible to mobilize the population of large societies and unify it through a commonly held set of values – values that became known as nationalism: a desire to achieve, maintain, and perpetuate the identity, integrity, prosperity, and power of the entire nation (Siegel 2006).

Taking into account the nature of relations and social situations that influenced the main characters of ‘Requiem for Dreams,’ it is possible to say that the Anomie theory by Merton provides a better explanation of deviant behavior. The status of the collective conscience as objectively present for science, exterior to individuals, is analogous to the empirical availability of concepts like “have,” “competent police work,” and so on in the language. Indeed it is analogous to the empirical availability of language per se as part of the culture. In this case, collective conscience is the repertoire of available cultural resources (Siegel, 2006). This move simply adds explanation to Merton’s assertions regarding the sacred and transcendent character of the collective conscience: it is experienced that way because it cannot be expressed or conformed to; it cannot be conformed to because it is sterile in its capacity to prescribe, but it can be used. Indeed people must use it in order to sustain the impression of morality as sacred and transcendent, as stable and prescriptive. Its use, moreover, is collectively monitored and constrained. Without such concrete, occasioned, and constrained usage, the sterility of the collective conscience would become apparent, the very essence of anomie (Cullen and Agnew 2007).

Social order in ‘Requiem for Dreams’ is the observed behavioral order, organized behavior as distinct from random utilitarian behavior, in a word, the society (Collins n.d.). Normative order is another system entirely, one which, if it is sufficiently respected by the membership, causes factual order. For Merton, society itself is moral but social facts, and moral facts are identical. It is the moral nature of society that provides for its own possibility.

Discussion (Anomie Theory)

Following Merton, the society depicted in the film has a life of its own, even in its moral capacity, not that there is something else separate from it that causes it. Moral constraint need not regulate everyone simultaneously by arising from a source external to the whole, to the society (Siegel, 2006). Merton distinguishes five main modes of adaptation: conformity, innovation, rebellion, retreatism, and ritualism (Collins n.d.). The characters in the film go through these stages but fail to maintain socially desirable behavior patterns. According to Merton, the very analogy postulates an organism whose parts are interdependent in such a way as to produce a whole that can be understood only with regard to those interdependencies–that is, a whole that cannot be understood as simply the sum of those parts, their features itemized separately, compiled, and added together.

Anomie theory better explains the criminal behavior of the four main characters because social order is part of the very social order it describes. When criminologists step back from this process and observe it from the outside, they will witness a reduction of ambiguity, though by no means its elimination, through the juxtaposition of behavior and the terms used to describe that behavior in local settings. They will witness stability sufficient for the purposes of those assembling the stability-which is to say, stability for all practical purposes. They will witness the societal membership assembling, disassembling, and reassembling order as they require, and they will witness the membership living within and asking for granted the objective reality of the products of their artful work. Morality does not simply cause society, as though without morality, only a chaotic society would remain (Williams and McShane 1998). For instance, going through the last stage, ritualism, the main characters “realize that they have no real opportunity to advance in society and accept the little relevance that they have” (Collins n.d.).

Merton’s modes of adaptation became, predictably, “normlessness.” For Merton, crime is not only normal but healthy, for it is a primary means the characters have (Vold et al. 2001) for protecting themselves against the withering away of the collective rules, that is, it’s own withering away. In concrete, individuals are the collective conscience or personify it or embody it in any way; it transcends all of society’s members. Thus its unavailability to societal members in direct experience would reduce its availability to consciousness. This does not happen because of the recognition and punishment of whatever the “outermost” extreme behavior happens to be. Crime cannot, therefore, be eliminated since whatever behavior is eliminated, something would still be the “outermost” extreme. In the film, drug dealing cannot be eliminated because of social norms and limited life opportunities Harry and Tycone have (Vold et al. 2001). Life troubles of Marion and Sara vividly portray that anomie is clearly indicating a crisis of far greater magnitude and scope than mere deviance (Lanier and Henry, 1997). Within its terms, compliance and deviance are equally impossible precisely because there is nothing to comply with or rebel against, no standards, no social currents judging, and no one is judged. It is, in its logically pure form, a state of no reality, a non-provision of categories for experiencing the objectivity of perception and experience (Lanier and Henry, 1997).

In sum, Merton’s theory of anomie (strain theory) unveils that the main characters feel the absence of all that society provides in the way of reality and objectivity. This is neither normal nor healthy, and movement in its direction results in a statistical increase in suicide. Sara’s illness and addiction to Harry become the physical manifestation of psychic death, reflecting the death of society, culture, and moral reality. Conflict theory does not explain inner drivers and values which have a great impact on the criminal behavior of the main characters.


  1. Cullen, S.T., Agnew, R. (2007). Criminological Theory: Past to Present: Essential Readings. Oxford University Press, USA; 3 edition.
  2. Collins, K.M. (n.d.). Anomie and Strain Theory.
  3. Eagly, A.H. (2004). Social Psychology of Group Identity and Social Conflict: Theory, Application, and Practice. American Psychological Association.
  4. Lanier, M., Henry, S. (1997). Essential Criminology. Westview Press.
  5. Requiem for a Dream. (2001). Dir, by D. Aronofsky, DVD. Artisan
  6. Merton, R. (n.d.). Anomie Theory.
  7. Siegel, L. G. (2006). Criminology in Canada: theories, patterns, and typologies. Wadsworth Publishing; 9 edition.
  8. Vold, G.B., Bernard, Th. J., Snipes, J.B. (2001). Theoretical Criminology. Oxford University Press, USA; 5 edition.
  9. Williams, P., McShane, M.D. (1998). Criminological Theory, 3 edition. Prentice Hall.
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