Darren Aronofsky is one of the foremost stylists of contemporary American cinema. A product of independent filmmaking in the 1990s, Aronofsky uses radical filmmaking form to tell intimate, obsessive portraits of characters in distress. Aronofsky is an obsessive director in his themes and his atmosphere. His own directorial obsessiveness mirrors the obsessiveness of his characters, people who are stuck in the thrall of their own addictions or psychological fixations. Whether he’s exploring the travails of a physical performer like a ballerina or wrestler, or whether he’s depicting the drug addict’s descent into oblivion, he keeps the narrative tightly wound around the personal experience of his characters to create an overwhelmingly intimate effect. He’s a claustrophobic filmmaker to say the least. He’s also an emotional filmmaker. His intensely personal storytelling combined with his stylized form makes his films moving experiences. Few independent filmmakers offer as much stylistic and thematic substance as Aronofsky does in his films.
Darren Aronofsky was born in Brooklyn in 1969. He was raised and educated there, while also taking trips to Kenya and Alaska to further his interests in field biology. In 1987 he attended Harvard University, studying anthropology and, after acquiring an interest in film, filmmaking. At the end of his university career, Aronofsky had already completed a short film, “Supermarket Sweep” (1991), that landed him on the shortlist of the Student Academy Awards. Aronofsky spent most of the 1990s working on a series of short films, before turning his attentions towards a feature in 1997.
Cash-strapped but eager to produce a feature, Aronofsky raised money from family and friends, soliciting $100 donations in order to fund Pi (1998). Partially influenced by his own Jewish cultural experiences, Pi tells the story of Max (Sean Gullette), an unemployed number theorist with severe mental disorders living in a shabby apartment in Chinatown. Max uses his advanced mathematical knowledge to predict the stock market, but after inputting his predictions, his computer crashes, spitting out a random 216-number. Max becomes obsessed with the number, entranced by its mystical power, but he also attracts the attention of others equally fascinated by the number, including an underworld Kabbalah sect.
Filmed in grainy black and white and full of mind-boggling discussions of the mystical properties of numbers, Pi is a challenging film experience, but also an exhilarating one. It’s a perfect example of independent film’s capacity for originality. The film’s ideas are dense, bordering on the absurd, and the filmmaking is stark and uncompromising. But it’s also undeniably personal. Each frame conveys Aronofsky’s passion. Although Pi lacks the overwhelming emotional power of Aronofsky’s later films, it still packs a punch, none more so than in the image of Max burrowing into his own head with a power drill in an effort to escape the number. Pi won Aronofsky the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.
The film also garnered enough critical support for Aronofsky to attract real funding and established movie stars for his follow-up, Requiem for a Dream (2000). Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream follows four drug addicts in their descent into chemically-assisted psychosis. It’s a raw vision of unrelenting human degradation. It’s also one of the most stylized films ever made. While the average 100 minute feature contains 600 to 700 cuts, Requiem for a Dream contains over 2000. It popularized the style of hip-hop montage, or “MTV editing,” in American cinema. Aronofsky constantly uses the most stylized techniques to depict the rituals of drug use and its effects on the human body. For example, in one scene he’ll plant the camera in the corner of the room with a wide fisheye lens and watch as Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) shoot up on heroin and go about their business, screwing and lazing about as the world rushes by them. The camera remains static as we see their movements play out in sped-up motion, jittering about the room like electrified zombies, a result of the time-lapse technique used to achieve it.
In other scenes he’ll forgo the static time-lapse photography and employ accelerated Soviet montage as when he shows Harry first take heroin: in rapid-fire extreme close-ups we see the needle enter his arm, the syringe push the cocktail of blood and opiates into his vein, then the drugs enter his bloodstream, then his pupil dilate, and the breathe in his lungs loose in ecstasy. In instances like these, Aronofsky’s directorial style seems like Eisenstein on cocaine. Then in other scenes, Aronofsky loosens his camera from the tripod and has it float about the faces of his characters, constantly pushing in on objects surrounding them to convey their heightened reality. When Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), starts hallucinating that her refrigerator has come to life after overdosing on weight-loss pills, the scene cuts quickly between the camera swooping in on Sara’s face and the refrigerator coming to life and freeing itself from its wall outlet. It’s a terrifying image, hallucinatory but also rooted in the emotional panic of the character.
Requiem for a Dream is unapologetically anti-drug. It climaxes by intercutting between its four main characters achieving their absolute lows. We see Harry in an emergency room having his arm amputated to remove the rancid cyst that grew at his injection site. We see Sara brought into the hospital looking like an emaciated corpse, the nurses shoving tubes down her throat to force feed her. We see Harry’s best friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), arrested in the South after a drug bust, suffering the abuse of his racist guards and the ill effects of his withdrawal. And most disturbingly, we see Marion perform in an underground sex show to pay for drugs from an abusive pimp.
The ending of Requiem for a Dream is crushing. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a film many viewers will never want to revisit, sheerly for its emotional torment. But therein lies its power. It assaults the viewer into submission, battering down any of the viewer’s presuppositions about drugs until the sheer horrificness of what is on display and the raw emotion radiating off the screen, enhanced by Clint Mansell’s haunting score, forces the viewer to acknowledge the tragedy onscreen. Requiem for a Dream is one of the most devastating films ever made as well as one of the most bravura displays of stylized filmmaking in American cinema.
Requiem for a Dream marked another critical success for Aronofsky. It allowed him the opportunity to develop a Batman film for Warner Bros., which he was to write with Frank Miller based off Miller’s Batman: Year One comic book. However, after Warner Bros. passed on the project in favour of a Batman vs. Superman film, which in turn also fell apart, Aronofsky declined to direct the later Batman film that would become Batman Begins and went to work on a secret science fiction project.
That film would turn out to be The Fountain (2006), his ambitious science fiction love story set simultaneously in the fifteenth century, the present day, and the distant future. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz star as doomed lovers in all three time periods. The Fountain is notable for its narrative density and beautiful imagery. Aronofsky has claimed the film contains the truest image of his moral and religious understanding of the universe, and although said understanding can be difficult to fathom, the film is his most personal work. Although it flopped at the box office and met with a mixed reception by critics, The Fountain remains a fascinating, emotional puzzle of a film. It’s true meaning is elusive, but its images and the doomed love story at its centre are undeniably powerful.
Aronofsky followed up The Fountain with a quieter film stripped of the fantastic imagery and radical philosophy of his earlier sci-fi effort. The Wrestler (2008) follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging wrestler, as he struggles with diminished interest in the sport and a broken personal life. The Wrestler is remarkable for its naturalism in contrast to Aronofsky’s earlier works, but it still shares their intimacy and thematic obsessiveness. Randy, like Aronofsky’s other protagonists, is obsessed with reclaiming his professional glory. He’s blinkered, unable to see that he’s little more than a child. For example, he lives in the back of an RV, is estranged from his daughter, and the closest relationship he has with a grown woman is with the maturing stripper (Marisa Tomei) he sees on a regular basis. Much of the appeal of The Wrestler is rooted in Mickey Rourke’s tremendous performance, but Aronofsky does his part to support that performance every step of the way. At the time the film served as the comeback film for Mickey Rourke, garnering him a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, before he inevitably returned to his troubled fringes of Hollywood culture.
Much of the formal techniques of The Wrestler—the grainy digital cinematography, the roaming handheld camerawork, the camera’s fixation on physical exertion and bodily sacrifice—can be found in Aronofsky’s follow-up, Black Swan (2010). The film depicts the psychological disintegration of a mentally and emotionally fragile ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman), as she performs Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Full of whirling camera motions during the dance sequences and unbroken tracking shots following Nina in her daily life with her abusive mother (Barbara Hershey), Black Swan is melodramatic horror at its finest. It’s full of big emotions and naked symbolism. The film abounds with doppelganger imagery, unabashedly amplifying the duality of the Swan Queen and Black Swan from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. If Requiem for a Dream represents Aronofsky’s formal technique at its most daring, then Black Swan is his storytelling at its most nakedly emotional. Nina’s fragility, her desire to please everyone around her, her passion and her egotism infuses every frame of the film. Black Swan was a major success for Aronofsky, garnering him his first Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards and winning Best Actress for Natalie Portman.
The Wolverine (2013) was to be Aronofsky’s follow-up to Black Swan, but after scheduling issues, Aronofsky left the project and went to work on a film he’d wanted to make since he was young: a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis. The result is Noah (2014), Aronofsky’s biggest and most compromised vision. There are moments of narrative daring in Noah. The fact that the third act wrestles with Noah’s (Russell Crowe) plot to kill his family to forever cleanse the Earth of humanity is shockingly dark for a major blockbuster. And Aronofsky’s formal mastery is still on full display, especially in the time-lapse Creation sequence that rivals Requiem for a Dream’s finale and Nina’s opening night performance in Black Swan as Aronofsky’s best moment of filmmaking. But then there are the strange fallen angels that resemble Neolithic Transformers and the massive battle sequences that are par-for-the-course for Hollywood blockbusters. Noah ends up as a fascinating film on the strength of the parts resembling Aronofsky’s undiluted vision, but it could have been greater than it was.
However, Noah being Aronofsky’s lowpoint only shows how especially strong the rest of his filmography is. Aronofsky is currently at work in pre-production on a variety of titles, including an HBO adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Regardless of what he turns to next, if it remains true to his past work, it’ll prove to be a formally daring and thematically obsessive project. Aronofsky is full of surprises, whether it’s the way he edits a scene or his choice of subject matter. He’s an inventive filmmaker with a knack for mining the dark psychologies of people from all walks of life. In his two decades as a professional filmmaker, he’s done as much to forward the form and style of American independent cinema as any filmmaker working today.