Requiem For A Visionary: The Films of Darren Aronofsky

The Movie Sleuth takes a brief journey through the works of ground breaking writer and director, Darren Aronofsky.

Anxiety, despair and obsession drive the films of writer-director Darren Aronofsky.  Considered by many to be Stanley Kubrick’s successor, the Jewish American filmmaker is one of modern cinema’s most uncompromising visionaries, his films ready to dive deep into the abyss of his protagonist’s psyche with impeccable audiovisual techniques and raw emotions from his cast.  Frequently working with the same collaborators such as cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky’s dense body of work represents a polarizing and controversial artist light years ahead of both his audience and fellow colleagues.  Often divisive and even alienating, this is an artist unafraid of challenging his viewers fears and desires with his psychological profiling of the troubled heroes leading his films.  

Utilizing a unique editing technique with emphasis on repetition and crescendo, one walks away from an Aronofsky picture either at an emotional height or far down below into a bottomless pit of bleakness. With this, let us talk about the films by Darren Aronofsky to better explain why he is my current favorite filmmaker.

Pi  (1998)
"I just can't get enough of Slinky!"
Aronofsky’s first feature, shot on reversal-stock black-and-white, tells the tale of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), an obsessive, socially withdrawn mathematician who is either on the brink of an incredible scientific discovery or is suffering from psychosis. Told almost entirely from the point of view of its unhinged narrator (Aronofsky’s one effort with voiceover narration), Pi (the mathematical constant) is a character study of a victim of anxiety disorders, migraines, and hallucinations.  Max spends his entirety analyzing numbers as life passes him by, hiding out in his apartment while occasionally mingling with his former college professor Sol (Mark Margolis, an eventual regular Aronofsky worked into every one of his films).  Beyond Sol, Max is devoid of friends or relatives and has no intention of changing that.  Prey to Wall Street bigwigs looking to exploit his intellect for financial gain as well as Hasidic Jews intent on cracking the oldest code of the Torah, chaos gradually becomes the norm for Max Cohen until neither he nor we know how to escape the madness.  

With Pi, Aronofsky introduced a unique narrative style of structuralism, comprised of repetitive edits, extreme close-ups, low-light levels punctuated by blinding flashes of light, and most notably, the SnorriCam, a camera that is physically attached to an actor’s body to freeze them in the center of a shot while the background moves freely behind them.  Aronofsky’s visual motifs of imagined dopplegangers and bizarre, grotesque hallucinations would find themselves played out several times over in his forthcoming work, most notably Black Swan, which appears to have utilized some of the same locations as Pi. Pi would also establish a lifelong working relationship between cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell, whose minimalist industrial score fuels the inner turmoil and self-imposed battle within Max Cohen.  

Aronofsky’s Jewish lineage is clearly all over the film, from the Hasids practicing the Tefillin to mixture of math and religion.  Pi isn’t so much interested in providing answers as it is in creating an experience of a paranoid schizophrenic. In a climate of filmmakers catering to an audience’s needs, Aronofsky quickly set himself apart from the pack by bringing us into the world of a character we’re not always inclined to spend time with. While a solid sophomore effort, Pi represents a potentially great filmmaker in early gestation.  It would only take two years for the young maverick to churn out what would become his first true masterpiece, a film which would shake the film world to its very foundations.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., Aronofsky’s first color film, Requiem for a Dream, is nothing short of a glimpse into the great Inferno.  Divided into three acts involving three drug addicted youths and an elderly woman named Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) who is the mother of the most troubled addict, the film is an ensemble piece that dives deep into the nature of addiction.  While the three kids roam the streets in search of their next fix or deal, the mother sits before her television munching on chocolate, occasionally making small talk with her neighbors before an offer arrives that could place the mother on a TV show.  Excited to fit back into her lovely red dress but too overweight to do so, she tries dieting and switching meals, which prove to be too daunting a task for Sara.  It doesn’t take long before the allure of diet pills draws Sara in and she too joins the youths in their mathematical downward spiral into self-destructive addiction.  

"I am so hot in this movie, I could
just cry."
Most viewers will immediately read Requiem as a drug movie, but Aronofsky’s real aim is to take ordinary addictions such as television, coffee, tanning, and unhealthy meals to suggest anything can be a drug.  The line between obsession over contraband and common household items no longer exists in Requiem, and as with any addiction, the consequences inevitably will catch up to both the characters and the viewer. While the argument can be made the three kids get their just desserts, Ellen Burstyn’s staggering performance as Sara Goldfarb is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.  That she lost her Academy Award nomination to Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich is stupefying!  

To suggest Requiem is a horror movie wouldn’t do the terror and shock the film unleashes with a vengeance justice.  Originally rated NC-17, Requiem pulls no punches in its unblinking gaze into defeat and despair.  Opening on a note of unfocused dread and terrible sadness, one can’t watch Requiem and not foresee the nightmare which will unfold and the hopelessness it will leave in its wake.  While Pi foretold the potential of Darren Aronofsky, his second film quickly catapulted him into the public consciousness as a real force to be reckoned with.  With its gritty cinematography, hallucinatory editing techniques and a somber, iconic score by Clint Mansell which would soon become world famous and used regularly in trailers, Requiem for a Dream is an iron fist of a film that no one will come away from without feeling the sting that comes with the bruises.   

The Fountain (2006)
"You can't fool me!
I know you're awake!"
Just when people began to wonder when Aronofsky’s next film would come out or how he could top Requiem, his first mainstream release became The Fountain.  An expensive hybrid of futurist science-fiction, medieval period piece and modern human drama, the film stars Hugh Jackman in three seemingly related roles as a Spanish conquistador, an oncologist working with animals and a cosmonaut in a spaceship heading towards a nebula.  Skirting freely between these three seemingly different but similarly fantastical story threads, The Fountain concerns the singular goal of Tomas/Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) in his pursuit of the fountain of youth to save Izzi (Rachel Weisz), the woman he loves from dying of cancer.  

Cross-cutting between all three threads, an element of cold blooded reality creeps in and as the separate periods begin to traverse upon each other the film becomes a meditation on man’s fear of dying.  While Requiem left a profound impression on the film world, The Fountain would succeed Requiem in its bold pursuit of transcendent emotional heights the likes of which have never been printed on film before.  Coming dangerously close to Heaven, The Fountain will either leave you indifferent to its surreal proceedings or make you weep tears of blood with an emotional sledgehammer.  Reaching for the stars with its startling organic visual effects, lovely symmetrical vistas and evocative score by Clint Mansell, The Fountain is ultimately about mankind’s crippling inability to accept death, how eons of time change nothing about that fear, and what it means to lose a loved one in this world.  While the subject of the afterlife is a subject visited countless times by many filmmakers and artists all around the world, few films get as close to the heart of grief and closure as Aronofsky’s labor of love.  

Still his most personal and unfettered work to date, it was with The Fountain that Aronofsky confidently filled the shoes worn by Kubrick.  Although the film was initially rejected by both the critical establishment confused by the triptych narrative and audiences expecting an action film instead of a metaphysical meditation on mortality, there really aren’t enough adjectives of praise, grandeur and profundity to express the greatness of The Fountain.  It touched me deeper than any other film in recent memory and remains my personal favorite film of his and the last eight years.  Completely and utterly perfect in every way and the sole proof of why Aronofsky is this writer’s current favorite filmmaker.

The Wrestler (2008)
In a break from tradition, Aronofsky’s The Wrestler jettisoned the hallucinatory narrative driving his previous films in favor of documentary realism and a down to Earth story of a washed up, has-been professional wrestler named Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke, in what could be his greatest role).  Working with cinematographer Maryse Alberti and using both real wrestlers and venues, The Wrestler is a quiet character study of a broken old man past his prime who only knows how to wrestle for a living.  In a brilliant casting decision, the film is as much about the sad protagonist as it is about the actor portraying him.  

"Three cheers for plastic surgery!!!"
While the subject of wrestling has always been one of ridicule and scorn, Aronofsky takes the physicality of the performance art seriously and shines a spotlight on an industry which continues to use and abuse their performers.  Mickey’s wrestling scenes bring to the forefront a breathtaking physical performance, giving both his body and soul to the role of Randy. In parallel to Randy’s story is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper approaching a similar plateau of irrelevance.  Both performers exploit their own bodies for a living until time begins to pulls the plug on their respective careers.  Meanwhile, in a thread that recalls the broken relationship between Jake the Snake Roberts and his daughter in the documentary Beyond the Mat is Randy’s estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  After a heart attack and doctor’s orders to no longer wrestle, the impoverished, lonely Randy tries to reach out to both Cassidy and Stephanie with little reward.  

While those expecting the usual brand of psychedelics germane to Aronofsky’s work get something far more down and dirty here. It’s impossible to think of anyone else playing Randy the Ram, or a film in which actor and character are so inextricably linked.  Mickey doesn’t so much play Randy as he is Randy, with many, many improvised moments including a blading scene midway into a wrestling match that is 100% real.  The film singlehandedly managed to resurrect the career of a fallen actor and took a performance art few took seriously and gave it immediacy and weight.  It’s a shame the newfound success Rourke earned would gradually recede back into old habits which undid his career in the first place.  While Randy the Ram may well have made the bed he sleeps in, one comes away more invested in this character than any other in recent memory.  Although the underdog story of Rocky has been told countless times, few underdog stories manage to get this close to the frail, desperate soul beneath the hardened, crusty exterior Randy hides behind.  

Black Swan (2010)
"I swear officer.
It's just allergies."
Initially a companion piece to The Wrestler from the female perspective and world of professional ballet, Black Swan would catapult the independent filmmaker to the forefront of Hollywood superstardom when the psychological horror film was nominated for Best Picture and Natalie Portman took home the Best Actress Academy Award.  Loosely echoing both the rehearsals and narrative flow of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the film is a surreal psychosexual foray into the troubled mind of Nina, an up and coming ballerina who just won the lead role of the Swan Queen.  There’s a lot of competition for this role, both real and imagined, as the pressures of success and stardom begin to take their toll on Nina.  

Hounded by a seemingly sleazy theater director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), jealous protégé Beth (Winona Ryder) and the stunning competitor Lily (Mila Kunis) which Nina both loathes and lusts for, Black Swan gradually shifts gears and becomes an experiential hallucinatory freak out as the film slowly drifts away from reality and into Nina’s head.  Much like The Wrestler, Black Swan displays a grueling performance art which looks easy to layman until Aronofsky zeroes in on every broken toenail, cuts and bruises sustained by the poor ballet performer.  

Unarguably the director’s most grotesque work since Requiem for a Dream with close-ups of bodily disfigurement in addition to psychological deterioration, Black Swan is a visual feast that’s equal parts beautiful and intolerably ugly.   Black Swan also bears the distinction of sporting motifs going all the way back to Pi being worked into the mainstream, including but not limited to dopplegangers, subway creeps, eerie underpasses, bodily transformation and many of the same locations as Pi.  Both Nina and the film dive fearlessly headlong into the twisted splendor of madness, giving the viewer images and scenarios too bizarre to describe properly and too rich to be easily dismissed.  

Viewers lured in by the much-discussed lesbian scene between Nina and Lily found themselves trapped in one of the most bizarre horror films in recent memory, freely blurring the lines between fantasy and reality to the point where we’re not sure what’s really happening anymore.  As Nina reaches artistic transcendence, so too does she careen towards psychotic oblivion.  It’s strange to think that the very alienating, uncompromising and non-commercial venture Aronofsky created would wind up becoming hugely successful.  Costing a mere $13 million to produce, the film grossed well over $300 million worldwide and spawned an endless series of tributes and parodies.  It would also give rise to what would become Aronofsky’s most expensive and divisive production to date, but not before it would forever change what we think of ballet and Swan Lake. 

Wash your hands and get ready
to eat!!!"
Noah (2014)
Budgeted at $125 million with a massive, life-sized ark set with some of the top visual effects artists working today, Darren Aronofsky was ready to tackle his first mainstream Hollywood blockbuster with Russell Crowe in the titular role of Noah.  Buzz surrounding the film’s production and now legendary battles with Paramount Pictures over final cut no doubt generated keen interest in the controversial Biblical epic.  And yet emerged inarguably the strangest, most polarizing, un-Hollywood multimillion dollar art film ever made.  

Released in IMAX and 3D in international territories, Aronofsky’s first and only film to open at #1 in the box office around the world quickly divided critics and audiences with audacious artistic liberties, hallucinatory psychedelia and some of the most peculiar, singular director creations ever to walk the Earth.   With co-writer Ari Handel (The Fountain) penning the screenplay, that Aronofsky was able to take a second crack at the metaphysical epic The Fountain (including two subtle subliminal edits from The Fountain included), maintain final cut and purport genuine state-of-the-art visual effects is nothing short of miraculous.  With Noah, Aronofsky takes the Biblical tale of all the world’s animals boarding the ark to survive the Great Flood and turned it into something of a modern environmentalist horror film that is as breathtaking as it is disturbing.  

Banned in Middle Eastern territories as well as a dartboard for backlash, Noah is the most controversial religious film ever made by a major director since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.  It takes a familiar story and injects real human turmoil and innermost conflict over the sacrifices made for the salvation of all things living.  Still a subject of intense debate, Noah also marks the first film of Aronofsky’s largely shot on open Icelandic locations.  Where most of his films are insular and withdrawn, Noah is open wide and roaring noisily with nature.  While one of many adaptations of the world famous Biblical tale, few have such fantastical elements filmed as full blooded realism, such daring transitions of character, and such astonishing visual beauty.  No doubt Noah is flawed by being far too overreaching but for a mainstream “Hollywood” offering, this is Aronofsky working to the edge of his craft and intellect.  This sort of film doesn’t come around very often, if at all in most cases. That is far more than you can say about most of the usual fare dominating the multiplexes.  

-Andrew Kotwicki  

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