I’ve been a fan of Darren Aronofsky since the release of his debut (feature) film, Pi, in 1998. I was so struck by its stark minimalism, black and white photography, and provocative content – not to mention the frenetic pacing and edgy soundtrack – that I’ve gone back many times to drink from the fount. To this day it’s still one of my top films of all time.
Recently, I saw Mother! (2017), Aronofsky’s latest film, and while it’s not his best effort, it’s certainly his most audacious. Among other things, it made me think of the director’s humble beginnings and how his early sensibilities are woven through the fabric of his work. By identifying those threads and tracing them forward, I think we get a strong sense of what makes Aronofsky tick. If it’s true he’s concerned primarily with human obsession and the Promethean penchants that drive it, perhaps filmmaking is how he works out his own obsessions and how he achieves catharsis. Whatever the case, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Pi lays the foundation and sets the stage for everything that follows.
In that film, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is the central character and focal point of the story. Max is a mathematics and technology whiz, cloistered in his cramped Chinatown apartment, obsessed with finding the underlying numerical pattern he believes the global stock market rests upon. His particular genius, along with his insecurities, obsessions, and growing paranoia, are fueled by the conviction that everything in the universe can be, indeed, must be, reduced to purely mathematical terms. Given the necessary intellectual exertion and the right formula, Max is convinced it’s only a matter of time until he unlocks the secret. Pi shows us not only how deep our obsessions go in our misplaced desire to paper over our deepest fears, but the price we pay for them.
In his second feature, Requiem for a Dream (2000), not only do we find images and motifs carried over from Pi, but most importantly we see its protagonists (Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly) blinded by fear, driven by empty promises, and bound by substances that serve as death-dealing substitutes for life-giving hopes and dreams. Though the film is unremittingly bleak, tracking as it does the main characters’ spiral into degradation and destruction, Requiem is far from nihilistic, but rather functions as a very sober, cautionary tale.
In his third film, The Fountain (2006), Aronofsky engages us in a complex narrative spanning 3 parallel timelines. Essentially, the main character (Hugh Jackman) is on an epochal quest to find a “cure” for death; and as the story unfolds we discover that the greatness of his obsessive quest is driven by an even greater fear of the very thing he can neither control nor achieve: the death of death. In the end, he finds that the attempt to eradicate death has made him its prisoner; and as he slowly comes to terms with his mortality, he discovers that the embrace of death is, paradoxically, the gateway to liberation and life.
In The Wrestler (2008), Aronofsky’s fourth film, Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging, bruised and lonely wrestler who’s trying desperately to make a “comeback”. While the cancerous holes in that dream are realities he can no longer deny, this is all Randy knows. He is a wrestler. After suffering a life-threatening heart attack, he is ordered by his doctors to quit wrestling or die; but when he’s offered a deal to wrestle his long-time nemesis in a rematch that promises a hefty purse, and a chance to reclaim lost glory, he agrees to fight “one last time”. During that final match, we watch as Randy’s heart begins to fail him. But at the roaring behest of his fans, the faltering Randy performs a move made famous by him, the difficulty of which will surely kill him. We then see him climb atop the ropes, and with outstretched arms laden with symbolism, he leaps into the air and out of Aronofsky’s frame.
Aronofsky’s fifth film, The Black Swan (2010), is about performance, and the quest for perfection that many consider to be a companion piece to The Wrestler. But while both films depict the obsessive pursuit of a career at the expense of all else, as well as the collapse of the performer/person distinction, The Black Swan highlights the toxic and psychologically incestuous relationship between the mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) and daughter, Nina (Natalie Portman) as the likely locus of the latter’s pathology. Obsessed with shaping her daughter into the ideal image she herself never attained, Erica has succeeded in creating a near-perfect dancer, but in the process, Nina has been robbed of her ability to authentically connect with herself and others. As tension mounts, the relationship between the ideal and real becomes increasingly blurred; and in the bravura final act of the ballet, when Nina ascends the stairs toward the light and then plummets to the darkness below, we witness a sacrificial gesture of profound, symbolic proportions.
Aronofsky’s sixth film is Noah (2014). While Aronofsky reads between the lines of the biblical story, his efforts here, on my reading, are interpretive rather than transgressive. Rather than a bit of pagan propaganda designed to lead the faithful astray, as some claim it is, for all the liberties taken, the film is quite respectful of and faithful to the spirit of the narrative. Moreover, in the face of the film’s artistic flourish and visual indulgences, the simple point being made is that Noah (Russell Crowe) was a good, even righteous man, but also a flawed man. Significantly, rather than having a direct pipeline to God, this more human Noah hears from God indirectly through his dreams, and this makes all the difference. While it’s true that, in the beginning, Noah is convinced he knows what God’s intentions are, and one might say righteously obsessed with carrying out those plans, when pushed to the existential limit, in the end, Noah finds a more humane and sober faith.
Mother! (2017) is Aronofsky’s seventh and most recent film, and arguably his least satisfying to date, even if it is his most audacious. Read as an allegory, Jennifer Lawrence plays the “Mother” (of creation) and Javier Bardem plays “Him” (God), who, driven or otherwise obsessed with his need to create, sows the (human) seeds that ultimately destroy their world. If Noah (2014) indulged in a bit of artistic license in its retelling of the Genesis narrative, Aronofsky’s creation story “prequel” is a mythico-religious mash-up that, for all its brilliance, unduly waters down its biblical core. When further mixed with his own idiosyncratic, enviro-political views, the film becomes unfocused and loses its cachet. Mother fails precisely because Aronofsky’s stretched religious sensibilities reach toward a pluralistic ideology that all good citizens embrace these days lest anyone be offended. And who would be offended by the Judeo-Christian God being depicted as an ego-centric, narcissistic male, juxtaposed with a maternal, all-loving innocent female who’s a victim of masculine aggression and the violence that inevitably follows?
Disappointing or not, on my reading, what all of Aronofsky’s films highlight are the Promethean, fear-based penchants that drive us, and the obsessions that often devour us, demanding as they do, our very souls. But in the face of evil, and the excesses that threaten to swallow every moment in death-dealing impossibility, Aronofsky shows us time and time again that each of those moments are simultaneously primed with promise and life-giving possibility.