Few filmographies are as uncompromisingly independent and fiercely original as director Darren Aronofsky’s. From his scrappy lo-fi debut in 1998 with PI, to the release of his revisionist biblical epic NOAH in 2014, each of Aronofsky’s feature films convey an artist with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a deeply-sympathetic view towards the terrors of the human experience.
His strength of vision is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability– for instance, the unconventional spirituality that shaped the unforgettable images of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN is also what caused mainstream audiences to stay clear for fear of having their fragile horizons broadened.
His willingness to court controversy might have held him back from bigger directing opportunities (he was once attached to direct a Batman film in the early 2000’s, only for his profoundly revisionist take to get canned in favor of Christopher Nolan’s famously “dark and gritty reboot), but it has nevertheless allowed him to accumulate a cultish fanbase just the same.
To some, the study of his career might be read as a cautionary tale; to others, a thorough deconstruction of one of the most vital voices in contemporary independent cinema.
Aronofsky was born February 12, 1969 in Brooklyn, to Charlotte and Abraham Aronofsky. Both parents were public school teachers who no doubt influenced his intellectual curiosity from an early age.
Growing up in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach neighborhood, Aronofsky was continually exposed to a mix of Italian and Russian & Orthodox Jewish cultures– the future director himself was raised in the cultural aspects of his Jewish heritage, although the religious and spiritual aspects were not as emphasized.
Aronofsky’s early hunger for intellectual enlightenment soon led him beyond the confines of Brooklyn, supplementing his education at Edward R. Murrow High School with brief stints at the The School For Field Studies in locations as far away as Alaska and even Kenya.
His studies in Africa proved particularly influential, an experience Aronofsky cites as paradigm-changing and that led him to further journey on through Europe and the Middle East with nothing more than a backpack.
SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991)
Aronofsky’s voracious appetite for knowledge eventually led to his enrollment at Harvard University in 1987, where he majored in social anthropology. It was here that he met an animation student named Dan Schrecker and aspiring actor Sean Gullette, who would later go on to star in his debut feature, PI (3).
Aronofsky credits these two with stoking his dormant interest in filmmaking, leading to his eventual formalized studies in the craft (4). In studying the history of the medium, he founds himself particularly enamored of the work of Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, amongst others.
These studies would culminate in his senior thesis film, SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991). Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information to be found about the film, let alone a viewable copy, but it featured Gullette in a leading role and went on to become a finalist at the National Student Academy Awards.
This experience no doubt proved highly influential for Aronofsky, solidifying his desire to pursue filmmaking as a career.
FORTUNE COOKIE (1991)
After Aronofsky’s graduation from Harvard in 1991, he moved to Los Angeles to obtain his MFA in directing from the prestigious American Film Institute. The two-year program resulted in the creation of two short films, the first of which is 1991’s FORTUNE COOKIE— an absurdist comedy inspired by the Hubert Selby Jr story of the same name.
Thankfully, an old VHS dub of the film has been made available in its entirety online, giving us our earliest glimpse at Aronofsky’s artistic development. Written by Aronofsky and produced by Jody Teora, FORTUNE COOKIE concerns a middle-aged salesman who comes to believe his recent string of successes are the result of the good luck contained with an old fortune cookie he keeps in his pocket.
The short follows his highs and lows, forcing him to contend with the pushy aggressions of a rival salesman intent on figuring out his secrets, and a strange pervert who follows him around and makes unwanted romantic overtures from the cabin of his gigantic Cadillac.
Aronofsky’s broadly humorous approach strikes a curious tone, exemplified by literal fart jokes and purposely weird performances that would be almost Lynchian if they weren’t so over the top. To his credit, Aronofsky casts the film entirely with middle-aged actors or older– a notable aspect in the world of student filmmaking, where the casts are typically comprised of the director’s friends or fellow students.
A distinct, albeit half-hearted, midcentury aesthetic defines the production design, with the characters dressed in baggy suits from the 1950’s and affecting a rapid-fire Transatlantic vernacular to match. Aronofsky even sprinkles a vintage car or two in the background, but beyond that he makes no effort to hide the trappings of contemporary life.
Nevertheless, a degree of deliberate design choice evidences itself in the locations, which juxtapose sleepy, pastel-colored suburban environs with crumbling, graffiti-riddled industrial areas (perhaps as a comment on the breakdown of the American Dream myth, or something similarly heavy-handed in an appropriately film-school way).
Working with credited director of photography Usa Stoll, Aronofsky captures FORTUNE COOKIE in the square frame of analog video, which no doubt was less of an artistic choice than it was a mandate from his first-year directing professor at AFI.
His approach to coverage mostly eschews conventional over-the-shoulder compositions and reverse shots, in favor of having his actors continually break the 4th wall by addressing the camera directly. A recurring visual motif finds Aronofsky framing his protagonist in a wide, flat composition and moving from one side of the frame to the other.
He repeats the action with the same framing in the subsequent shot, albeit a few yards down the street. Most filmmakers would cover this same action as a continued dolly shot, but Aronofsky chops it up and fragments the line of movement as another way to convey that his protagonist is moving in circles without actually going anywhere.
The effect is like watching an old-school side-scrolling video game that doesn’t actually scroll when the hero reaches the edge of the screen. A soundtrack comprised primarily of street performance-style percussion only vaguely foreshadows the urban character of Aronofsky’s future work, but a series of activity-based insert shots (presented in extreme closeup up and edited together in rapid-fire succession to a soundtrack of exaggerated audio effects) immediately call to mind the signature stylistic technique he’d perfect in PI and its follow-up, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000).
While his next student short from this period is also unreleased and only available for AFI student viewing in the school’s media library, Aronofsky’s 1993 short PROTOZOA nevertheless serves two vital contributions to his development as a filmmaker– one being that its successful completion meant receiving his and the other being his first collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who would go on to become a key creative partner in Aronofsky’s professional work.
The short, which apparently stars a young Lucy Liu, is reported by those who’ve seen it to be about a trio of slackers just drifting aimlessly through life– akin to human amoebas.
Several key aspects of Aronofsky’s directorial signature apparently emerge here, like his quick-cut insert shots and intellectual approach to religion. PROTOZOA’s title itself would prove influential in Aronosky’s development, becoming the name of the production company in which he’d later produce his features under.
NO TIME (1994)
Aronofsky’s fourth short from this era– 1994’s NO TIME — appears to have been made after his graduation from AFI, and adopts the brazen Generation X attitude that marked pop culture in the 90’s. At first glance, the film appears to be a slacker riff on improv comedy shows, anchored by a quartet of young actors playing various characters across several vignettes.
Shot by Matthew Libatique on color 16mm film, NO TIME resembles the style of FORTUNE COOKIE with its super-broad humor and moronic fart jokes that seem at odds with the darkly cerebral character of Aronofsky’s future professional work.
The visual style plays fast and loose with the rules of composition, frequently opting for close-ups that are almost claustrophobic in their nature. It’s unclear exactly what Aronofsky was trying to achieve with NO TIME, unless he was trying to get this particular style of filmmaking out of his system early on.
Any director’s student films have a strong chance of bearing no resemblance to their professional counterparts. After all, that’s the nature of film school– to experiment, to feel out, to play in the pursuit of establishing one’s particular voice.
Aronofsky’s professional style is so distinct and singularly his, however, that this quartet of early shorts really does leave one surprised as to how little they predict the unique artistic voice we’ve since come to cherish and anticipate.
Nevertheless, these first efforts constitute a crucial training ground for Aronofsky, and their creation within the confines of the formalized film education system provides him with vital resources and collaborators that would carry him towards professional success in the long-term.
In the short-term, these same resources would give him the confidence necessary to take that first step: the creation of a feature-length effort that would establish his voice as that of an uncompromising indie maverick.
At its heart, the filmography of director Darren Aronofsky is concerned primarily with the conflict between faith and reason.
His stories find his protagonists as otherwise reasonable people laboring under some kind of delusion– a washed-up wrestler believes he’s on the verge of a comeback; a ballet dancer thinks she’s transforming into an animal; an intellectual pursues his late soulmate across time and space.
This line can be traced all the way back to his feature-length debut: the paranoid mathematics thriller, PI (1998). One of the scrappiest debuts in recent memory, PI stages itself as a frenzied showdown between faith and reason in which a reclusive mathematician employs numerology in a bid to predict the stock market, only to unwittingly entangle himself with a cabal of hasidic Jews intent on decoding the true name of God.
As any proper debut feature should, Aronofsky’s script draws heavily from personal experience. Set in his native New York City, the story finds inspiration in Aronofsky’s Jewish upbringing, which de-emphasized the religious aspects in favor of its cultural experience.
As a result, Aronofsky was raised to embrace his faith at arm’s length, always regarding it with a critical eye while never discounting its importance as an emotional motivating force.
PI reflects this rather literally as it charts the plight of its protagonist, the brilliant recluse Maximillian Cohen. Portrayed by SUPERMARKET SWEEP’s Sean Gullette, Max suffers from debilitating cluster headaches, which prompts him to shut himself off from the outside world and sit before his homemade computer named Euclid as it spits out a random sequence of numbers he hopes will bring him riches on the stock market.
On the rare occasion he ventures outside his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, he tends to visit a retired Columbia professor and mentor figure named Sol Robeson. A crucial bridge between Max’s logic-based perspective and the fanciful designs of the hasidic Jews, Sol is played by seasoned character actor Mark Margolis, easily the most recognizable face in the film.
When Max’s computer spits out a 216-digit number that he initially dismisses as nonsense, Sol is uniquely suited to convey the number’s spiritual significance, thus setting up Max’s increasingly perilous association with a pushy hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (played by Ben Shenkman), who sees Max’s mysterious number as the answer to a longtime mystery involving the true name of God that, when uttered aloud, will bring about the messianic age.
Aronofsky’s approach to PI’s distinct visual aesthetic is unavoidably shaped by its relatively paltry $68,000 production budget, but by no means is it limited by it. In an era where shooting on video was becoming increasingly accepted, Aronofsky’s choice to shoot on film is a notable and vital one.
Working once again with his film school cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky positions PI as not just a story told from Max’s perspective, but as a subjective experience totally contained within the confines of his mind. Gullette’s noir-style voiceover plays a substantial role in this regard, but it is Aronofsky and Libatique’s extremely gritty and abrasive cinematography that can claim most of the responsibility.
PI’s radical high-contrast look stems from its acquisition onto black and white 16mm reversal stock, which foregoes the negative process by producing a positive print right out of the gate.
The savings in processing time are offset by a decreased latitude and an exaggerated grain structure, which in Libatique and Aronofsky’s hands results in a rough 1.66:1 image that resembles the earliest days of photography. They push this conceit even further via harsh lighting setups and claustrophobically-tight compositions.
The camerawork reveals PI’s shoestring-budget origins, foregoing luxurious tracking shots in favor of simple locked-off setups and jittery handheld movements.
Several of Aronofsky’s technical signatures make their feature debut in PI, like rapid-fire activity inserts that portray a physical action like shutting a door or popping pills in a hyper-exaggerated manner, or a disruptive camera technique that has since become known as Snorricam, whereby the camera is rigged to the actor’s body with the lens pointing towards him, selfie-style.
This results in an effectively unsettling composition that anchors the actor firmly in the center of the frame while the background whirls and spins around behind him.
Aronofsky’s technical approach is even more impressive when considering that the entire film was shot guerrilla-style, having never secured any permits for their various locations.
PI also marks the first collaboration between the burgeoning director and his longtime composer, Clint Mansell, whose breakbeat electro-grunge score relentlessly pushes the action forward while becoming the musical equivalent of a drill corkscrewing its way into your head.
PI establishes several concepts and ideas that have since become key artistic signatures of Aronofsky’s. Beyond the aforementioned religious themes that deal specifically with the director’s native Judaism, PI shares his profound intellectual curiosity– exemplified by Max’s efforts to find mathematical patterns in the flow of life around him, as if to “decode” the ways of nature itself.
The film takes great pains to point out how concepts like the Fibonacci Spiral and the Golden Mean recur naturally across a wide of biological phenomena, giving a semblance of mechanical order to the relative chaos of evolution.
The terror of the human experience is another major theme that courses through Aronofsky’s work, whether it’s the theatrical horror of films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) and BLACK SWAN (2010), or the lower-key existential fear of oblivion and obscurity in films like THE FOUNTAIN (2006) and THE WRESTLER (2008).
PI establishes this artistic conceit via the perils of genius, whereby Max’s staggering degree of intelligence is both a blessing and a curse. His mental powers endow him with an almost supernatural talent with mathematics, but they come at the price of his chronic, crippling headaches.
Aronofsky seems to ask: “how smart is too smart?”, as Max becomes so consumed by his need to decode the meaning behind the mysterious number sequence that he feels the need to literally drill into his brain as a means to make it all stop.
This idea of knowledge as a curse dovetails obliquely, but rather nicely, with Aronofsky’s exploration on religion, as it was Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that cast her and Adam from the Garden.
Aronofsky further peppers PI with little artistic quirks, like having the actor from his student short FORTUNE COOKIE reprise his creepy pervert character in a scene on the subway, or having Max take a trip out to Coney Island– the primary setting of his next film, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
Considering its origins as a scrappy shoestring indie with an unproven director, no recognizable talent and an admittedly abrasive visual aesthetic, it’s fair to say that PI’s creators probably didn’t fully anticipate the degree of success their film would go on to achieve.
PI debuted at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where its buzz as one of the most talked-about films that year propelled Aronofsky to his first major career award: the festival’s prestigious Directing Award. Artisan Entertainment acquired PI at the festival for $1 million, its investment paying off when the film went on to gross $3 million in its theatrical release.
The film world responded positively to Aronofsky’s arrival, awarding him the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay, and eventually giving PI the distinction of being the first feature film available for download on the internet (1).
Through sheer labor and fortitude, Aronofsky had kicked off his career in earnest, with PI establishing him as a maverick visionary poised to take the indie film world by storm.
CLINT MANSELL MUSIC VIDEO: PI R SQUARED (1998)
As part of the promotional campaign of PI’s release in 1998, director Darren Aronofsky highlighted the work of his composer, Clint Mansell, with a music video for the score’s de facto theme.
Titled “PI R SQUARED”, the piece takes a fairly basic approach that only seems complicated thanks to rapid-fire, subliminally-appealing cuts synchronized with Mansell’s frenetic breakbeat sound.
Aronofsky intercuts skin-crawling stock footage of ants with footage from the film itself– specifically, the sequences in which Sean Gullette runs around the city in a paranoid frenzy.
Combined with flashes of mathematical images like Fibonacci Spirals and complicated formulas, Aronofsky creates an overall feeling much akin to the experience of its feature-length counterpart. “PI R SQUARED” is a fairly minor piece, perhaps more of a marketing after-thought than a true-blue music video, but it nevertheless establishes the foundation for the advertising work that he would pursue later on in his career.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)
2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is often cited as the de facto film that “you must see, but never want to watch again”– it’s a gut-wrenching, nauseating, and nightmarish experience that aims to convey the inescapable horrors of addiction.
My first experience with the film was a memorable one– I was in high school, and one day a group of us gathered together in my friend’s basement to watch the film. For two hours, we were glued to the TV screen, its lurid blue glow being the only light source in the room.
We were too morbidly curious and profoundly horrified to turn away, and by the time the movie was over, we immediately burst outside into the bright spring sunshine and ran around like idiots given a second chance at life.
It’s nearly impossible to achieve such a visceral film experience in the comforts of your own home, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM delivered that and so much more, besting any of Nancy Reagan’s efforts to keep kids off drugs with a harrowing and uncompromising audiovisual experience.
For me, and for much of the film world, this was the first impression that director Darren Aronofsky left on pop culture. He had broken out into the indie scene in a big way with 1998’s PI, but he was still an unknown quantity in the eyes of the larger cinematic community.
That all changed with the release of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, still considered to be one of the most controversial films of all time almost two decades after its release.
Aronofsky’s association with the project reaches all the way back to film school, beginning with his making of the short student film, FORTUNE COOKIE, in 1991– an adaptation of author Hubert Selby Jr.’s short story of the same name.
Selby was an influential force in Aronofsky’s artistic development, leading the burgeoning young filmmaker to purchase his 1978 novel, “Requiem For A Dream”, shortly after finishing school.
By the time he was cutting PI in 1998, Aronofsky had barely cracked Selby’s book open, so he lent it to his producing partner Eric Watson to read during an upcoming trip. As Aronofsky notes in his director’s commentary for the film, Watson would immediately approach him upon his return with an urgent desire to adapt Selby’s book for the screen.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is, at its most basic level, an anti-drug film– but that’s not exactly where Aronofsky’s interest lies. Instead, his approach is informed by a simple question with profound implications: “what is a drug?”.
Far from simply being a story about narcotics, Aronofsky uses the framework of Selby’s story to dissect the inherently-addictive nature of our pleasure centers.
This inquiry drives the creation of a rich tapestry of characters, all addicts in their own ways, clustered together in Aronofsky’s native Brooklyn in an ambiguously contemporaneous setting– it could be today, or yesterday, or 1973.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM marks Aronofsky’s first time working with well-known talent, establishing his artistic reputation for driving his cast to deliver career-best performances. Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans headline the film, each giving the entirety of themselves over to their roles.
Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a scrawny, strung-out heroin junkie whose addiction compels him to continually steal his mother’s TV set and sell it at a pawn shop so he can score his next fix.
Bursty would take home an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb– a frail and delusional recluse whose drug is the euphoria of adoration, causing her to go to dramatic lengths to lose weight for what she thinks will be an upcoming appearance on a television program hosted by Christopher McDonald’s flashy oil salesman, Tappy Tibbons.
Connelly plays Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver, an aspiring dress designer with a dark and moody temperament. Wayans eschews his screwball comedic persona for a rare serious turn as Harry’s best friend, Tyrone Love– an up-and-coming drug dealer who isn’t as street-smart as he thinks he is.
Aronofsky structures the cascading rhythms of these characters’ arcs as something of a symphony, evoking the musical nature of the film’s title as he divides the action into four distinct movements (spring, summer, fall, & winter) that gradually build in intensity towards a shocking and deliriously-intense catharsis.
Aronofsky retains several prior collaborators from PI and his student work, including Sean Gullette and Mark Margolis, who cameo as an unnervingly pompous yuppie and a lazy pawn shop dealer, respectively.
Stanley B. Herman also makes his requisite appearance as a variation on the creepy pervert he’s played since FORTUNE COOKIE, unwittingly giving the film one of its oft-quoted lines in his lecherous “ass-to-ass” chant during a nightmarish sex party sequence.
Technical collaborators like cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell also return to lend their talents in service to Aronofsky’s vision. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM presents old-fashioned 1.85:1 35mm film in radical new ways, pairing his picture with a hyper-aggressive sound mix to completely assault the senses.
A muted, naturalistic color palette complements a distinctly gritty texture while evoking the ramshackle grime of Coney Island with buzzing fluorescents and unforgiving sunlight. Indeed, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is a decidedly ugly film, but one that’s nevertheless so richly-realized and surreal we can’t help but be drawn in.
Aronofsky and Libatique employ a variety of classical dolly, handheld and Steadicam movements in addition to expressionistic techniques like distorted lenses, spiraling overheads, extreme undercranking, and Aronofsky’s signature actor-anchored “Snorricam” shot, all of which editor Jay Rabinowitz chops up into a delirious split-screen brew that simulates the experience of an increasingly-bad trip.
Mansell’s score would prove instantly iconic upon the film’s release, imprinting itself into the collective pop culture psyche with its dark techno baseline and an intense string theme performed by Kronos Quartet.
Indeed, the score was a breakout piece of work for both Mansell and Kronos Quartet, helping to ensure the film’s longevity with a theme that has since been used and repurposed many times over, perhaps most famously as a battle theme for the trailer of Peter Jackson’s second installment of his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE TWO TOWERS (2002).
PI may have been Aronofsky’s breakout, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is the film that cemented his artistic aesthetic in the eyes of the public, establishing his technical and thematic signatures.
Having grown up around Coney Island and greater Brooklyn, the world of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is one that the director knows intimately and completely.
His familiarity imparts the film with an unforgettable sense of place, helping his audience to understand the context of the world that his characters wish to escape via their various addictions. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM also represents the perfection of a technique he had been experimenting with since his earliest student work: rapid-fire inserts that depict distinct activities in extreme close-up.
Referring to these mini sequences as “hip hop montages”, Aronofsky employs this technique throughout the film as something akin to a punctuation mark preceding some of the film’s most bizarrely surreal images.
The audience is able to experience the same kind of rush his characters feel as they shoot up or pop pills– but just as we get to share in their loopy delight, we also must endure their pain and suffering as their addictions increasingly take hold.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is nothing if not a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction, a key pillar in Aronofsky’s career-long exploration of the dark side of the human experience.
Aronofsky shows how our ability to subvert our own biological chemistry and willfully manipulate our perception of reality comes at a high price– the more we give ourselves over to narcotically-induced euphoria, the more we lose of our authentic selves.
Addiction slowly saps of us our humanity, dimming the bright light of our individuality until eventually the light goes out. Aronofsky’s inherent understanding of the human condition allows him to depict addiction for the waking nightmare it truly is, exposing drug culture’s sexy and appealing aspects as ultimately hollow and elusive.
Nearly twenty years after its premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM has steadfastly maintained its reputation as one of the most controversial films ever made.
The controversy began before its theatrical release, with the MPAA refusing to rate the film any lower than NC-17 due to, of all things, its sexual content. To his credit, Aronofsky courageously refused to cut the film– after all, the shocking nature of its content was integral to the conveyance of the core message.
An NC-17 rating would mean that commercials couldn’t air on TV and prints ads couldn’t appear in newspapers, virtually guaranteeing a box office catastrophe.
In the end, Aronofsky chose to release the film unrated. This move would allow him to distribute the film without edits or censorship, but it also meant that no mainstream theater chain would show the film either.
Thankfully, Aronofsky was able to leverage his indie cred and the film’s public controversy into a respectable run in arthouse theaters.
The film’s cult status was cemented with its successful performance in the home video market, with many no doubt adding the DVD to their collection as a must-own work of cinema that they’ll knowingly never take down from the shelf.
More important than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s profit margins, its warm critical reception reinforced the power of Aronofsky’s unique voice in cinema. He had delivered on PI’s artistic promise with an unforgettable powerhouse of a film that served as the culmination of his early directorial output.
In closing this first chapter out on such a strong note, Aronofsky would begin a new one well-poised to meet the greater challenges of a higher artistic plane.
THE FOUNTAIN (2006)
Entering one’s thirties can be a loaded rite of passage– the telltale signs of aging like grey hairs, chronic pain from old injuries, and a slowdown of metabolism usually rear their ugly heads for the first time. It’s a time when many start to grapple with their future and the realism of their prospects and dreams.
Thoughts about one’s own mortality can move from the realm of the impossible to the all-too tangible, but most don’t have to deal with the spectre of death directly.
In the early 2000’s, director Darren Aronofsky was entering this particular life juncture for himself, and found himself confronting death when his parents were diagnosed with cancer.
While they eventually overcame their illnesses, the process left the young filmmaker trying to make sense of it all– caught between the worlds of faith and reason, his intellectual rationality couldn’t reconcile itself with the staggering unknowability of oblivion. Words simply failed him; thankfully, pictures did not.
All this internal turmoil caused Aronofsky to turn to his old Harvard roommate, Ari Handel, in an effort to develop a story that properly expressed his sentiments about the great beyond. Their efforts would result in Aronofsky’s third feature film: THE FOUNTAIN (2006).
An ambitious and overwhelmingly unique meditation on death, eternity, and undying love, THE FOUNTAIN is a pivotal work in Aronofsky’s canon. It was received upon its release as an artistic misfire, but it’s clear now that THE FOUNTAIN was simply ahead of its time.
Pop culture during the 2000’s was defined by its materialistic flash and taste for gaudy excess, so in hindsight it’s perhaps understandable that audiences decked out in Tom Hardy tattoo shirts and pink sweatpants with “Juicy” on the butt were not exactly ready for the psycho-spiritual brew Aronofosky had concocted.
The success of PI (1998) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) gave Warner Brothers the confidence to finance Aronofsky’s vision, setting him and his producing partner Eric Watson up with an exponential increase in budgetary resources to the tune of $75 million.
Complete with epic battle scenes, gigantic set builds and an all-star lead couple in Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, THE FOUNTAIN was shaping up to become Aronofsky’s first big Hollywood film. The lifelong New Yorker even relocated to Australia to settle in for a long, arduous shoot.
Inevitably, the studio got buyer’s remorse, and when Pitt departed the project because Aronofsky wouldn’t accommodate his rewrite requests, they seized on the opportunity to shut a massively risky project down and cut their losses.
Despite all this, the project wasn’t completely dead in the water– Warner Brothers, to their credit, still believed in Aronofsky’s vision enough to leave the door open to a revival should he bring the costs down. The wounded director retreated to his writing while re-immersing himself in his roots in the independent sector, trimming away unwieldy battle scenes to better hone in on THE FOUNTAIN’s key themes and ideas.
In doing so, Aronofsky was able to shave his budget down to $35 million. By 2004, Aronofsky was off to Montreal, Canada with his second greenlight and a renewed conviction in his vision.
THE FOUNTAIN’s story arranges itself as a triptych, depicting a man named Tomas and his quest across time and space to conquer death and live forever with his beloved, Isabel.
Aronofsky sets the action in three distinct time periods– the 16th century, 2005, and sometime in the distant 2500’s– with the action and story beats arranged so that they repeat, overlap, and cascade upon in each other in such a way that suggests a circular temporal structure of reincarnation rather than a linear, forward-pushing timeline.
In the 16th century, Tomas is a Spanish conquistador who has traveled to the jungles of South America in a bid to find the Fountain of Youth and win the hand of his beloved Queen Isabel. In contemporary 2005, he is a driven neuroscientist desperately searching for the elusive cure to brain cancer before it claims his terminally-ill wife.
In the 2500’s, he is a meditative zen astronaut, traveling through the cosmos in his bubble spaceship towards the dying star, Xibalba.
Known primarily at the time for his fierce portrayal as Wolverine in the X-MEN films, Hugh Jackman proves a revelation as the three distinct incarnations of Tomas– each more grief-addled and tortured than the last. Rachel Weisz handles the luminescent complexity of Isabel’s three forms so effortlessly that it’s hard to imagine Aronofsky initially didn’t want her in the part; she was his girlfriend at the time, and was sensitive to the potential accusations of favoritism that her casting might imply– until Jackman was able to overcome his resistance and sway him.
Weisz ties her three roles as a Queen, a wife, and an ethereal angel together with a wide-eyed wonder at the prospect of confronting oblivion– she’s unafraid of the Great Beyond, seeing death not as an end, but as an empowering transformation that will enable her to discover the wider universe beyond our perception.
Indeed, her musing that “death is the road to awe” handily sums up THE FOUNTAIN’s fundamental message, giving the film the necessary conviction to uphold its distinct tone.
Through these two souls and their various incarnations, Aronofsky fashions a profound narrative that resonates at the innermost levels of the collective human experience, drawing inspiration from a wide range of resources like Renaissance art, Western religion, and Eastern philosophy and meshing it together into something that feels at once both impossibly familiar and jaw-droppingly alien.
By this point in his career, Aronofsky had cemented his core group of collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.
This includes talent like Ellen Burstyn and Mark Margolis– Burstyn following her highly-praised turn in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with her appearance here as modern-day Tomas’ compassionate and maternal boss, Dr. Lillian Guzetti, and Margolis as Fr. Avila, a Franciscan priest accompanying 16th-century Tomas to the Mayan jungles.
Behind the camera, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer James Chinlund, editor Jay Rabinowitz, and composer Clint Mansell also return– their individual efforts coming together in sublime harmony.
Celluloid film is already prized for its organic nature (especially in relation to the clinical, sometimes-lifeless sheen of digital cinematography), but THE FOUNTAIN finds Aronofsky and Libatique imprinting the 1.85:1 35mm film image with an unusually-tangible degree of organic texture.
Extreme closeups reveal the fleeting effervescence of life itself via the fine hairs on skin and rough tree bark. Indeed, Aronofsky and Libatique shed the gritty, grimy lo-fi texture of their previous collaborations for a timeless aesthetic that looks at the specter of death with a romantic eye, painting it as an unknowable force of impermanent beauty.
An evocative black/gold color palette unifies THE FOUNTAIN’s three eras, complemented by limited splashes of green and red. A “starlight” motif drives the film’s approach to lighting, illuminating Chinlund’s sets in bright wells of concentrated spotlights or the warm, ambient glow of candles while puncturing the surrounding darkness with pinpoints of distant luminescence.
If Aronofsky harnessed the spirit of John Cassavetes with his rough-hewn approach to PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, then THE FOUNTAIN channels the ghost of Stanley Kubrick with its plentiful one-point perspective compositions, abundance of overhead angles, and classical/formalist camerawork.
Rabinowitz brilliantly weaves the film’s three epochs together into a cosmic whole, employing classic techniques like match-cutting on action or similar shapes.
Naturally, a story like THE FOUNTAIN requires a substantial degree of visual effects, but Aronofksy’s roots as a scrappy microbudget filmmaker enable him to pull off his vision while both keeping costs down and ensuring his images’ technical integrity against the always-evolving nature of digital wizardry.
Aronofsky endeavors to capture as much of the film as practically as he can, utilizing only basic CGI techniques like compositing and rotoscoping.
THE FOUNTAIN’s most inspired touch in this regard is arguably its technique for realizing the vast backdrop of a dying nebula in space. To achieve this, Aronofsky employed macrophotography of various chemical reactions inside water– a process that reads as organic and entirely believable thanks to space and water’s shared physics.
In adopting this approach, Aronofsky was able to create realistic and astonishing visual backdrops for a fraction of the cost it would take for a computer to do the same. Like Rabinowitz’s edit, Mansell’s already-iconic score unifies the disparate elements of THE FOUNTAIN into a singular entity, using romantic and intensely epic string arrangements played once more by Kronos Quartet as well as Scottish post-rock band, Mogwai.
As vastly different a film as it is to previous works like PI or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE FOUNTAIN is nonetheless an inherently authentic portrait of Aronofsky’s distinct artistic character.
His intellectual, academically-minded and atheistic upbringing within a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and culture forms his lifelong search for the middle ground between faith and reason.
Despite opening with a verse from the Old Testament, the film takes great pains to ensure its narrative and thematic conceits can’t fit into a tidy box labeled for one particular religion– indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of Eternity marries the core spiritual tenets of Western and Eastern religions while also folding in elements of Kabbalah mysticism, Mayan creation myths and contemporary neuroscience into a singular cosmic experience.
In doing so, Aronofsky is able to capture the awe of oblivion, the afterlife, and creation itself without religious imposition. Indeed, THE FOUNTAIN is the kind of film that a Christian, Muslim, or Agnostic alike could find profound spiritual resonance in.
Just as REQUIEM FOR A DREAM explored the dark side of the human experience through addiction, THE FOUNTAIN dissects ideas like death, grief, and religious fanaticism (seen best in a sequence set during the Spanish Inquisition).
Whereas his previous film’s depiction of chemical dependency made for an appropriately harrowing and dour viewing experience, THE FOUNTAIN’s treatment of its darkly existential themes is meant to inspire awe at the beauty of creation’s impermanence.
Death is a powerful force that we all must succumb to one day, but THE FOUNTAIN posits that Love is even stronger; death can be conquered– not by living forever, but by letting our divine capacity for love resonate through the ages.
THE FOUNTAIN premiered at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, generating a strong base of acclaim before its theatrical release. Its domestic run, however, did not meet expectations– mixed critical reviews and poor audience attendance left THE FOUNTAIN unable to recoup half its production costs.
Critics admired the earnestness of Aronofsky’s ambition even as they dragged him for the film’s perceived failures, belittling his vision as a hodgepodge of religious gobbledygook that, while pretty to look at, made little to no narrative sense.
Time has revealed those sentiments to be shortsighted at best (and foolish at worst), as Aronofsky’s ambitious “failure” has only grown in esteem in the decade since its release. Like a slow-blooming flower, THE FOUNTAIN’s multitudes of nuance and spiritual insight steadily unfold over time– each subsequent viewing drawing us deeper into Aronofsky’s vision, yielding ever-more elusive emotional truths.
These are the kind of ideas we expect to see from filmmakers nearing the end of their lives, not one barely into his thirties. Remembering this, the spiritual profundity of THE FOUNTAIN becomes even more impressive.
Whenever “Best Of” film lists are compiled for the 2000’s (or the 21st century for that matter), THE FOUNTAIN almost always manages to achieve a respectable slot– even ticking upwards in rank every couple years as its ideas prove ever more timeless.
It may be one of the most misunderstood films of its decade, but THE FOUNTAIN is also one of its best. For Aronofsky, it may not quite fully embody his aspirations as a cinematic masterpiece, but it is certainly a work that will stand the test of time– marking his transition from an upstart maverick to a mature artist in full command of his abilities.
THE WRESTLER (2008)
Everyone loves a good comeback story. As long as cinema has been around, it seems, this particular narrative archetype has persisted.
It can happen either in front of or behind the camera, sometimes simultaneously– especially simultaneously, considering the trope’s usefulness as a tool for washed-up actors or tired directors to revive a flagging career.
In 2008, the latest comeback story to enrapture audiences was told by actor Mickey Rourke, who had finally delivered on the early promise of a career many had written off as a series of missteps and squandered opportunities by starring in director Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature film, THE WRESTLER.
Rourke made himself particularly visible during the film’s promotional campaign, availing himself of countless media interviews and appearing at local screenings in LA (I managed to catch one of these appearances myself, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica just prior to its official release).
Indeed, the pairing of THE WRESTLER and Rourke was lightning in a bottle– a divine alchemy between actor and subject matter. What often gets lost in this narrative, however, is Aronofsky’s role in the proceedings, and how THE WRESTLER serves as something of his own comeback story.
The sudden surge of career momentum that enabled Aronofsky to make 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN slowed just as abruptly in the wake of that film’s disappointing performance.
Having experienced his first major career setback by faltering under the scale of a mid-budget studio film, Aronofsky must have felt a return to the independent sector in which he had made his name was the appropriate move.
Indeed, a total artistic reboot seemed necessary in order to reclaim his forward momentum. He found this fresh start in Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay about an aging wrestler attempting a comeback– a story he was strongly compelled to realize on-screen despite it not stemming from his own thoughts like all of his previous work.
Partnering with a new producer in the form of Scott Franklin, Aronofsky set up a bare-bones– yet ambitious– production that shot around the New Jersey area for thirty-five days.
The scrappy nature of the shoot didn’t provide Aronofsky with very much in the way of resources, but it did give the director the opportunity to reconnect with his independent roots and re-establish his artistic relevancy, all while making one of the most acclaimed films of his career.
The eponymous wrestler of the film’s title is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up champion fighter far removed from his 1980’s heyday.
He’s got little to show for his prior success– he lives in a trailer park in rural New Jersey, his chest bears the scar of a major heart operation, and he’s estranged from his grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He’s still wrestling, albeit in the ramshackle regional arenas he used to dominate on his way up to the pros.
Rourke is nothing short of a revelation here, delivering a performance full of heartbreak and regret that reveals untold depths about both the character and the man playing him.
It’s hard to imagine the fact that Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star in the role (1), as it belongs so fully to Rourke– indeed, no other actor would likely have brought the kind of dedication Rourke does, like physically cutting himself to draw blood during a match just like a real wrestler might do.
Funnily enough, even Rourke apparently needed some convincing at the beginning. He reportedly didn’t think very highly of Siegel’s script, but his desire to work with Aronofsky pushed him through his initial wariness.
Aronofsky even let Rourke rewrite all his lines (10)– a seemingly simple gesture that nonetheless shows the director’s growth of artistic confidence in his collaborators, considering how his first iteration of THE FOUNTAIN had collapsed partially because he refused to accommodate Brad Pitt’s request to make changes to the script.
As Randy mounts one last shot at glory in the form of a rematch with his former nemesis The Ayatollah, Rourke repeatedly shows the audience that this was the role he was born to play.
Rourke’s own career had followed a similar trajectory, and all the bad choices he made have led up to this singular moment that requires everything of him. Clearly, the power from Rourke’s performance lies in its nature as an emotional and artistic catharsis for the actor himself– it is, simply, art imitating life.
Life would imitate art after the fact, with Rourke’s valiant efforts ultimately coming up short. Despite universal praise from critics that positioned him as a lock for the Best Actor Oscar, Rourke would only make it as far as the nominee pool, losing the golden statue to Sean Penn’s similarly transformative performance in Gus Van Sant’s MILK (2008).
However, this development only matters if one sees the Oscars as the be-all end-all of a film’s artistic worth; the fact remains that Rourke delivers the performance of his lifetime, and the art form of cinema as a whole is made richer by his dedication and sacrifice.
Befitting its framing as an indie character study, THE WRESTLER surrounds Rourke with a limited set of supporting characters, most of them female to better differentiate Randy’s cartoonishly macho fantasy world from reality.
There aren’t too many people that Randy can relate to, but he finds something of a spiritual counterpart in a middle-aged stripper named Cassie.
Played by Marisa Tomei in an Oscar-nominated performance, Cassie also pays the bills by offering up her body to the entertainment of the crowd, her vessel having become more of a liability than an asset as she’s aged. Like Randy, she too wears a mask when she’s working, hiding her real self away from her audience.
This includes Randy, who spends a great deal of time and energy attempting to make the transition from customer to friend, gradually coaxing the real Cassie out by the end.
Evan Rachel Wood excels as Randy’s estranged daughter, Stephanie, delivering a vindictive, bitter performance as a damaged college student who wants little to do with the father who is only now beginning to show interest in her.
Aronofsky fills out the remainder of THE WRESTLER’s cast with authentic performances by real wrestlers and other New Jersey locals, injecting a visceral realism to the proceedings while further differentiating the everyday from the garish theatricality that Randy deals in. Finally, character actor Mark Margolis continues his streak of appearing in every one of Aronofsky’s features by making a cameo as Lenny, the cranky landlord of Randy’s RV park.
The visual aesthetic of THE WRESTLER differs so wildly from Aronofsky’s previous work that it functions as a complete artistic reset, switching out all of his key collaborators (save for returning composer Clint Mansell) in favor of new blood and fresh ideas.
He starts with the cinematography, eschewing a fourth consecutive collaboration with his regular DP, Matthew Libatique, in exchange for the services of Maryse Alberti– a french cinematographer renowned for her cinema-verite documentaries.
Aronofsky and Alberti shoot THE WRESTLER on gritty Super 16mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, presenting a dreary, autumnal color palette punctuated with bursts of garish color via the wrestlers’ various costumes and the countless fountains of spurting blood.
Indeed, the grainy, organic texture of Super 16mm aptly captures the literal and thematic sheen of blood & sweat, further reinforcing the raw physicality on display. Far from the sculpted theatricality and stagework of THE FOUNTAIN, THE WRESTLER harnesses the natural light found in its real-world locations, empowering the filmmakers with a nimble mobility.
Indeed, when it comes to Aronofsky’s camerawork, “mobile” is the operating word: inspired by the work of the Dardenne Brothers, his camera evokes sensations of searching or restlessness as it fluidly follows the actors around real locations.
There’s a degree of detached observationalism at play, albeit one that gradually diminishes itself in favor of a quiet empathy and compassion as the story unfolds.
While the cinematography strives for visceral realism, editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a tempered expressionism, utilizing jump cuts as visual ellipsis that compress time across one long, continuous action.
Another memorable moment finds the sounds of an audience cheering in anticipation of a big wrestling match juxtaposed with a tracking shot of Randy making his way from the bowels of a grocery store to the deli counter– to him, it’s just another performance, but the striking mismatch between sound and picture brilliantly underscores just how far Randy has strayed from his element.
While Clint Mansell returns to Aronofsky’s fold, his score (consisting of a spare guitar riff played by none other than iconic guitarist Slash) is downplayed in favor of a suite of needledrops that perfectly embody Randy’s mindset and 80’s heyday.
Classic 80’s hair bands like Quiet Riot and Guns & Roses make appearances on the soundtrack– a development that normally would gobble up the majority of Aronofsky’s budget and leave little left over for the film itself.
It’s a testament to Aronofsky’s credibility, as well as Rourke’s moving performance and THE WRESTLER’s resonant storyline, that many tracks were donated for free– including extremely iconic radio hits like Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child Of Mine” (2).
Bruce Springsteen even got in on the fun, finding himself so inspired by an early cut of the film that he composed a new original song named for the film that would go on to be incorporated into THE WRESTLER’s end credits and even win a Golden Globe.
Despite its significant departures from Aronofsky’s established aesthetic and prior narratives, THE WRESTLER is undoubtedly preoccupied with the key themes that drive his artistic identity.
The New Jersey setting allows Aronofsky to ground his efforts in a sort of “home base”, harnessing the experiences and observations he’d cultivated during his formative years in the larger New York/NJ area.
The dark side of the human experience, previously explored to such chilling effect in all of his prior features, again finds Aronofsky dissecting another particular aspect thereof– specifically, pain, aging, and the distinct horror of having your body fail you.
Aronofsky goes to great lengths to show the extreme wear and tear Randy has accumulated throughout a lifetime of gruesome physical performance. A large scar runs down his chest, leftover from a drastic heart bypass surgery.
His joints are creaky, his energy is low, and he needs a chemical cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs in order to function at the most basic of levels.
One of the film’s key generators of suspense is Randy’s battle against his own heart, which threatens to give out entirely if he exerts himself too much. Naturally, this stands as a major obstacle to Randy’s attempt at a comeback, but what choice does he have when all he really has left to live for is the roar of an approving crowd?
Being of the advanced age that he is, Randy walks that fine line between delusion and conviction– he’s too old, too washed-up to recapture the glory days of his youth, the haters might say. Every sign points towards retirement, but Randy truly believes he can be become a champion once more.
This aspect of THE WRESTLER’s story serves as a great example of the internal battle between faith and logic that marks Aronofsky’s work– albeit one that flips the script from previous iterations.
As seen in Max in PI or Thomas in THE FOUNTAIN, an Aronofsky protagonist is often a rational, intelligent person challenged by the presence of the unknown or the inexplicable.
Randy The Ram, however, is stuffed to the brim with faith in himself and his abilities, despite the cynical dismissal of the outside world who see him as a broken-down sack of hamburger meat.
While the screenplay did not originate with Aronofsky himself, it’s easy to see why he was drawn to it, and the act of approaching his signature themes from the perspective of someone else’s expression makes for one of the most nuanced and resonant works in his celebrated filmography.
As mentioned before, THE WRESTLER kicked off a wave of resurgent momentum for Aronofsky’s career after the disappointing reception of THE FOUNTAIN. The film premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, taking home the Golden Lion in the process.
It went on to Toronto, where Fox Searchlight snapped up the distribution rights for $4 million. Given a limited release in December of 2009 before going wide in January, the film debuted to almost-universally positive reviews and healthy box office driven by a savvy marketing campaign that created a meta-narrative around Rourke’s own comeback story.
Rourke even made a guest appearance on WrestleMania XXV with a fake storyline that paralleled his character in the film (3). Critics honored Rourke’s courageous performance with the aforementioned Oscar nomination, as well as bonafide wins at the BAFTA’s, the Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards.
As for Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER is evidence of his graduation to a mature filmmaker with refined (yet still iconoclastic) tastes. Nearly a decade on from its release, THE WRESTLER is fondly remembered as one of his very best works, re-establishing his pre-eminence in the indie sector while setting the stage for even bigger victories to come.
BLACK SWAN (2010)
The lo-fi independent production of 2008’s THE WRESTLER served to unleash director Darren Aronofsky’s ferocious creative energy, reconnecting him with the iconoclastic spirit that kickstarted his career. He knew that he couldn’t afford to bask in the glow of his artistic redemption– he had to strike again, and soon.
Leveraging his newfound creative momentum into another hit was a task easier said than done, but thankfully he already had a project in the pipeline.
Back during the production of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Aronofsky received a script by Andres Heinz titled “The Understudy”, about off-Broadway actors in New York contending with the haunting appearance of their doubles.
He liked the general idea, but thought it might be more compelling if set within the world of ballet, being an insular subculture that is rarely depicted onscreen.
He commissioned Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin to craft a rewrite with this change in mind, resulting in what would become a nightmarish foray into psychological horror titled BLACK SWAN. The project had spent the ensuing the eight years in development hell, finding a brief home at Universal before decamping back to the independent realm.
Despite the heat he’d generated with the success of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky was turned down by every studio in town– even with a proposed production budget of $13 million, he found he couldn’t entice studios to bite on such an experimental genre picture, even with major stars attached.
Indeed, the indie iconoclast was confronting Hollywood’s New Normal: a post-Recession aversion to risk and a distaste for the cultural cache of The Auteur in favor of candy-hued “Content” desperately licensing any kind of pre-existing intellectual property that might draw an audience.
Thankfully, Aronofsky’s street cred in the indie world was strong enough to secure the funds he needed, enabling him to make what would come to be his most successful film to date.
Following in the grandiose footsteps of horror icons like Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg, BLACK SWAN tells a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in the pursuit of artistic perfection.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, an ambitious ballerina plucked from obscurity to headline her dance company’s new production of Swan Lake.
Portman, who Aronofsky had attached to play the part as early as 2000, fully immerses herself into the role, going so far as to drop twenty pounds and spend countless months in dance training prior to the shoot.
Her long-term loyalty to Aronofsky’s vision would prove fruitful, propelling her through a career-best performance that would ultimately earn her the Academy Award. She’s imprisoned in a childlike inner state, held there by her strict, overbearing mother Erica.
Played by seasoned character actress Barbara Hershey, Erica is a former dancer herself– albeit a failed one who projects her own ambitions onto her daughter and pushes her to be the prima ballerina she never was, all while denying Nina her agency and sexuality as a grown woman.
This arrested development proves a problem when Nina’s director, Thomas Leroy (iconic French actor Vincent Cassel) handpicks her to play the lead in his production of Swan Lake– a role that requires the successful projection of duality in the twin forms of the White Swan and the Black Swan.
Coaxing Nina’s dark side out from deep within proves a formidable task for the intense, narcissistic director, compelling him to employ psychological and sexual manipulation with surgical precision.
The ploy works, although a little too well– a monster awakens inside Nina, making itself known via nightmarish episodes of doppelgänger sightings and body horror that question her grip on reality.
This insatiable beast feeds off the dark energy of those around her, thriving off her sexual relationship with Mila Kunis’ Lily, a mysterious new dancer in the company, as well as the bitter despair of Winona Ryder’s Beth Macintyre, who had previously been Leroy’s star dancer before she was unceremoniously replaced by the younger and more-virginal Nina.
As Nina descends into her nightmare of perfection, Aronofsky embraces the conventions of the psychological horror genre even as he plays them against the everyday objectivity implied by the film’s documentary-style cinematography.
He deftly incorporates spooky subtleties and blatant jump scares alike, all the while dragging the audience deeper into Nina’s subjective perspective and making her eventual transformation into the titular Black Swan a viscerally plausible experience.
After the total collaborative reset of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky brings back some of his key creative partners from films past in a bid to connect his new aesthetic to his artistic roots.
This includes recurring performers like Mark Margolis and Stanley B. Herman making respective cameos as an extra in the gala sequence and, naturally, a creepy pervert on the subway. It also includes technical craftsmen like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, editor Andrew Weisblum, and composer Clint Mansell.
If its thematic similarities weren’t enough to position BLACK SWAN as a companion piece to THE WRESTLER, then the cinema-verite style of cinematography shared between them certainly picks up the slack.
Libatique adopts the handheld Super 16mm film aesthetic that Maryse Alberti developed for THE WRESTLER, giving the 2.35:1 frame a gritty, organic texture that stands in stark contrast to the film’s cosmopolitan setting and elegant subject matter.
The handheld camerawork gives BLACK SWAN an appropriate fleet-footed energy, allowing Aronofsky to quite literally dance with his actors. Libatique’s approach differs from Alberti’s in its embrace of the horror genre, mixing the theatrical lighting of Nina’s professional world with the dim, natural glow of her personal one.
Framing favors tight, almost-claustrophobic closeups and compositions that allow Aronofsky to play with the literary idea of “The Double” by highlighting a reflective element in almost every shot.
Libatique’s efforts work in concert with new production designer Therese DePrez, who cultivates a color palette of black and white tones supplemented by secondary splashes of pale green and pink.
Mansell’s contribution is much more notable here than his spare work on THE WRESTLER, reworking excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into a mysterious, brooding score underscored by a throbbing guitar that musically echoes the beast lurking beneath Nina’s refined exterior.
Like THE WRESTLER before it, BLACK SWAN’s narrative hinges on several of Aronofsky’s signature thematic preoccupations despite not authoring the script himself.
The film’s format as a psychological horror enables Aronofsky to plumb more of the pitch-black depths of the human experience– in particular, disease, body horror, and the idea of passion as a negative quality.
Some of BLACK SWAN’s most iconic moments stem from Nina’s body coming under siege from a bird-like presence within, like pitch-black feathers poking out from under the skin of her shoulder, or her knees forcefully cracking backwards into a horrific avian posture.
Coupled with terrifying hallucinations and sightings of her doppelgänger, these developments ultimately lead up to Nina’s total transformation into the titular animal– but did she really turn into a bird in full view of an adoring audience, or was it all in her mind?
Aronofsky deftly walks the fine line between the real and the imagined, further underscoring Nina’s conflict between belief and logic. Logic would dictate that humans can’t simply transform into another animal; it’s safe to say that’s an objective truth (extreme body modifications notwithstanding).
However, by aligning the audience’s perspective with Nina’s subjective point of view, Aronofsky does away with the pesky hurdle of an objective truth and establishes a scenario where all things are possible.
The tug of war between faith and logic is the backbone of any good psychological thriller, and it’s directly because of Aronofsky’s exploration of this conflict in his prior films that makes BLACK SWAN so effective as an entry in the genre.
Whereas the exploration of faith in prior films like PI or THE FOUNTAIN used the prism of religion, BLACK SWAN is inherently about faith in oneself and how it clashes against expectations and discipline.
Few art forms are as rooted in the necessity of discipline as ballet– indeed, nearly every aspect of Nina’s waking life is dominated in some form by her vocation. When she isn’t practicing in an insular studio sealed away from the bustle of the city, she hangs around her dingy apartment and practices some more.
She has no love life to speak of, and routinely denies herself small indulgences like the occasional slice of cake. To successfully play the Black Swan, she has to learn to let go of her discipline and give in to a raw, animalistic drive.
The framework of the psychological thriller genre might imply that BLACK SWAN’s descent into madness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing one’s self to unchecked id, but in Aronofsky’s hands, the message instead seems to be that all the discipline in the world is for naught without the foundation of passion and inspiration.
Reams of critical thought have already been expounded about the idea that BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER are companion pieces, each working in complement to each other within a distinct chapter of Aronofsky’s artistic growth.
Indeed, their respective narratives frameworks bear many similarities as they each track a protagonist pursuing a career of demanding physical performance at the expense of a “normal life”.
When viewed together, it becomes immediately evident that the refined and cosmopolitan femininity of BLACK SWAN contrasts tidily with THE WRESTLER’s blue-collar, broken-down machismo.
The two films seem to inform and shape each other, despite being made separately– an observation that no doubt stems from the lingering vestige of Aronofsky’s original idea years back, which would have detailed a love story between an aging wrestler and a young ballerina before he decided it was better to split them up into their own respective films.
United in their shared aesthetic and thematic conceits, BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER are also tied together by their shared success– a one-two punch that represents the pinnacle of Aronofsky’s career as well as his artistry (so far).
After debuting as the Opening Night film of the 2010 Venice Film Festival, BLACK SWAN opened to warm critical reception.
A modest degree of success was to be expected given its genre trappings as a psychological horror, but the rave reviews from critics helped BLACK SWAN to find the kind of mature, artistically-discerning audience it might not have had otherwise.
Aronofsky’s crossover hit eventually joined the ranks of other classics like William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) and Jonathan Demme’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) as one of the few overt horror films to be honored by the Academy, earning nominations for Portman’s performance, Andrew Weisblum’s editing, Libatique’s cinematography, and even Best Picture.
Aronofsky himself would score his first Oscar nomination for his direction, thus formalizing the growing notion that BLACK SWAN was a truly special film in his body of work– the perfect alchemy of subject matter and his particular artistic strengths.
Portman may have been the only one to walk away with a gold statue that night, but the filmmakers could rest assured that their passion project had been formally canonized as one of the classics of 21st-century cinema. Seven years on, BLACK SWAN has lost none of its darkly-elegant edge, with each passing year adding more fortification to the idea that Aronofsky had achieved an artistic perfection all his own.
MUSIC VIDEOS & COMMERCIALS (2011-2012)
Riding high off the success of 2010’s BLACK SWAN, director Darren Aronofsky turned his attention to a long-gestating passion project that aimed to reimagine the classic biblical story of Noah’s arc.
The logistical challenges of mounting such an ambitious project naturally made for a slower pace in development and pre-production, so Aronofsky filled his spare time (and bank account) with a series of music videos and commercials that would broaden his aesthetic portfolio.
METALLICA & LOU REED: “THE VIEW” (2011)
Aronofsky’s first music video in over a decade would be for a collaboration between Metallica and The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed called “THE VIEW”.
His last music video was for Clint Mansell’s “PI R SQUARED”, and was comprised of grainy black & white footage lifted directly from his feature debut; “THE VIEW” brings back that particular aesthetic, opting for an extremely high contrast, monochromatic look.
Perhaps inspired by Lou Reed’s fire & brimstone vocals (spoken plainly like a poet prophet rather than singing), Aronofsky also incorporates expressionistic flourishes like lens flares and unstable double exposures that complement the over-aggressive macho posturing on Metallica’s part.
THE METH PROJECT CAMPAIGN (2011)
Anti-drug commercials have always been hailed for their willingness to shock and horrify. Easily the highlight of Aronofsky’s short-form work during this period, he collaborates with The Meth Project for a series of four spots that recapture the graphic shock and visceral horror of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
Through the four vignettes– individually titled “DEEP END”, “ER”, “DESPERATE” and “LOSING CONTROL”— Aronofsky drops us right into a vivid scenario involving someone caught in the grips of a severe meth addiction.
We see a girl slashing her wrists, another girl overdosing, a young man tearing his little brother’s room apart in search of cash, and a boy reluctantly prostituting himself out to an older man.
Each vignette starts out with an extreme close-up of the subject’s face, awash in bright light and looking to the camera while an inner monologue plays.
The effect is almost tranquil– that is, until Aronofsky dials the exposure back and ramps the film speed to real-time, pulling back with his handheld camera to reveal the horrific chaos unfolding around them. The ads made quite the splash when they debuted in November of 2011, generating waves of chatter about the campaign’s effectiveness as well as the excellence of Aronofsky’s craftwork.
YVES SAINT-LAURENT: “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME” (2011)
Aronofsky closed out 2011 with a case of artistic whiplash, veering from the graphic grittiness of the Meth Project campaign to the glossy elegance of a perfume commercial for Yves Saint-Laurent.
The spot, titled “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME”, features his BLACK SWAN co-star Vincent Cassel as a black-suited lothario effortlessly seducing a trio of beautiful young women across the city. Each of the three locales gets it own color code, helping us to differentiate Cassel’s location via strong swaths of orange, blue and red.
Aronofsky creates a moody, cinematic look that juxtaposes baroque elegance with the crisp lines of modernity. The piece is also notable for its contributions by several of Aronofsky’s frequent collaborators, including producer Scott Franklin, editor Andrew Weisblum, writers Mark Heyman and Ari Handel, and composer Clint Mansell.
KOHLS: “JENNIFER LOPEZ” (2012)
A 2012 commercial promoting pop icon Jennifer Lopez’s partnership with Kohls doesn’t particularly seem like it would appeal to an artist of discerning taste like Aronofsky.
Indeed, the bright, bubbly spot bears no evidence of his signature, maybe save for the string lights in the background that evoke the lighting aesthetic of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN… but even then, that’s a stretch.
Aronofsky stages the piece as a single shot, strung together from multiple takes as Lopez dances and sings to the camera and undergoes several wardrobe changes. It’s an admittedly slick piece of work, with Aronofsky’s relative anonymity behind the camera affording him the opportunity to play around with complicated technical ideas.
One could easily imagine Aronofsky taking the job just for the payday (especially while he was laboring to get an ambitious and risky passion project off the ground), but that line of thought does a disservice to the man’s natural curiosity towards his craft, which manifests through an eagerness to experiment with technique.
“JENNIFER LOPEZ” isn’t exactly memorable as a piece of advertising, but it is effective as a cohesive marriage of concept and execution.
When viewed together in the context of his larger body of work, these short-form pieces don’t evidence a substantial amount of artistic growth on Aronofsky’s part– indeed, pieces like “THE VIEW” and The Meth Project campaign find him returning to extremely familiar ground.
That being said, this period does show Aronofsky turning away from the inward-looking nature of his artistic approach and engaging with pop culture on a level that’s appropriate for an American filmmaker of his pedigree.
A longtime outsider and iconoclast dwelling on the independent fringe of Hollywood, Aronofsky’s brush with prestige in the wake of THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN’s twin successes meant he was now on the inside of the machine– a commodity that could be exploited for the material gain of others. The challenge would now be maintaining that ferocious independence in the face of mainstream expectations and pressure.
The biblical epic has always been a time-honored staple of American cinema, with some of the earliest films ever made drawing inspiration from the timeless stories contained within the “good book”.
In the latter decades of cinema’s existence, these biblical films tend to be marked by a high-profile controversy over their artistic interpretations– films like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) or Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) have caused no shortage of consternation over their depictions of Jesus and the events of The Gospel.
These stories dare to humanize their iconic protagonists, which naturally tends to generate vocal backlash from the people and organizations tasked with preserving their sanctity.
The latest revisionist take to rankle the faithful is director Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH (2014), which seeks to expand upon the Old Testament’s classic, yet all-too-brief, fable of Noah and The Ark. Aronofsky had been interested in the story since the seventh grade, when he won a writing contest with his entry on the subject (1).
After making his debut feature, PI (1998), Aronofsky partnered with his co-writer and former college roommate Ari Handel to write a screenplay exploring his unique take on the Noah story (1)– the crafting of which would ultimately take several years.
Despite the success of his recent efforts, THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2011), Aronofsky found it difficult to convince studios to buy into his $125 million passion project.
It was the age of “Intellectual Property” in mainstream studio filmmaking, and the world-famous story of Noah and his Ark somehow couldn’t quite cut the mustard.
To prove that indeed there was a modern audience for his revisionist take, Aronofsky rather cunningly commissioned the production of a NOAH comic book in 2011, and used the project’s resulting fanbase to quantify the worth of his “IP”– in other words, he went out and built the necessary audience himself.
Armed with Paramount’s financing and the collective resources of super-producers Arnon Milchan and Mary Parent, Aronofsky and his producing partner Scott Franklin soon found themselves embarking on the director’s most ambitious– and successful– film yet.
We’re all familiar with the biblical story of Noah and The Ark, but we’ve never seen it quite like this. Ten generations on from Adam & Eve, humanity has split into two distinct clans– the barbaric descendants of Cain and the virtuous descendants of Seth, headed by patriarch Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) and embodied in Russell Crowe’s Noah.
Aronofsky seeks to deepen the sketch of a character that’s typically portrayed in The Bible, casting Noah instead as a reluctant man of faith with a horde of psychological demons tormenting him on the inside.
When he begins having nightmarish visions of a world destroyed by a deluge of water, Noah seeks guidance from his grandfather, Methusaleh.
Hopkins injects the role with an immediate gravitas befitting his career reputation, believably projecting the grizzled, magical aura of a man who is reported to be many hundreds of years old and is the last living person to have met Adam.
Methuselah advises Noah that a great flood is coming– a means for an unhappy Creator to purge the Earth of his unsatisfactory creations and start life anew. What’s more, The Creator has tasked Noah with building a large ark in which to shelter two of every animal and his small family so that they can start over when the waters recede.
Despite his internal doubts and misgivings, Noah begins preparing for the Great Flood, constructing a massive arc with the help of several Golems– fallen angels whom God had transformed into hulking rock monsters when they came down to Earth to help humanity.
The first half of Noah is rather fantastical, adopting a LORD OF THE RINGS template in its approach to mankind’s origins– complete with a massive CGI-laden battle as Noah defends his ark from an offensive led by Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain, the brutal and vindictive figurehead of the Cain lineage.
The second half is where the film gets really interesting, when Aronofsky treats Noah’s riding out of the flood in the ark as a simmering psychological chamber drama. Racked by a profound survivor’s guilt, Noah spirals even deeper into his obsession with fulfilling The Creator’s wishes.
His wife Naameh — played by Jennifer Connelly in her second collaboration with Aronofsky after REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) — becomes the voice of reason, imploring Noah to come back from the brink. He also must contend with a rebellion from his two sons, Ham & Shem.
Played by Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth, respectively, his two sons each have their own reason for turning on their father: Ham seeks revenge for the girl Noah allowed to be killed by her own people, and Shem seeks to protect his pregnant wife, Ila (Emma Watson), from Noah’s crazed crusade to extinguish humanity once and for all.
While all of this is happening, Tubal-Cain is stowed away in the bowels of the ark, laying in wait to wrestle control from Noah and re-establish his evil leadership.
NOAH affords Aronofsky the opportunity to work with an all-star cast, which even extends to the voice-only roles, with Nick Nolte and regular collaborator Mark Margolis providing the voices for two of the golems. Behind the camera, Aronofsky’s core group of technical collaborators also return.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique injects NOAH with the epic feel of a big-budget Hollywood film, replete with an orgy of CGI creatures and epic battles that marks the film as one of the most technically-challenging for both Aronofsky as well as his computer effects team.
Combining a mix of 35mm film and digital Arri Alexa footage onto a 1.85:1 canvas, Libatique and Aronofsky render their range of dynamic compositions in drab earth tones.
Handheld close-ups complement an otherwise formal approach, with Aronofsky making a recurring visual motif out of a particular aerial/crane move that drifts up and away from his subject.
Indeed, he often strings this same movement across multiple successive shots, achieving a hypnotic effect that also showcases the volcanic grandeur of his Icelandic locales and production designer Mark Friedberg’s cavernous Ark sets.
Returning editor Andrew Weisblum faces a greater challenge than usual, with Aronofsky tasking him with the execution of a recurring motif that sees epoch-spanning timelapses rendered in a unique, rapid-fire snapshot style.
Clint Mansell expectedly provides NOAH’s original score, which once again commissions the talents of Kronos Quartet and possesses a swelling, romantic flair reminiscent of biblical epics of yore as well as Aronofsky’s own 2006 feature, THE FOUNTAIN.
NOAH deals heavily in the themes and ideas that Aronofsky has spent his career exploring, the most prominent of which being the interior struggle between faith and reason.
This conflict is no doubt what initially attracted Aronofsky to a revisionist take on Noah’s Ark, as it would enable him to apply a cerebral approach to religious ideas– an approach that previously had made films like PI and THE FOUNTAIN so intellectually resonant.
A significant portion of the classic Noah’s Ark story finds Noah grappling with doubt from both within and from those around him regarding his outlandish visions of the end of the world.
NOAH takes this template and runs with it, applying a compelling (and borderline-psychopathic) twist that extrapolates Noah’s desires for the end of humanity to the point that he’s willing to murder a newborn infant. He labors against all sound logic and reasoning, filled with righteous conviction that he is fulfilling The Creator’s divine plan.
Additionally, Aronofsky obliquely explores this theme during a montage that incorporates the aforementioned propulsive snapshot-style timelapse technique to detail the origins of the universe and mankind.
Noah recounts to his family the biblical story of creation found in the Book Of Genesis, but the images onscreen detail The Big Bang, the cosmic formation of the stars and planets, the beginnings of life on Earth, and mankind’s slow evolution from apes.
Aronofsky then goes a step further, with Noah explaining the generations of violence between the tribes of Cain and Seth while rendering this conflict on-screen via rapid-fire silhouettes of figures engaged in combat throughout history– including the recognizable forms of Roman centurions, Napoleonic troopers, WW2 fighters and modern-day soldiers.
It’s a stunning sequence that finds Aronofsky achieving something of a harmony between faith and logic by applying a figurative interpretation of the Bible that seeks to connect ancient ideas to immediate contemporary concerns.
For whatever reason, however, Aronofsky temporarily ignores this scientific approach in his portrayal of Adam & Eve in The Garden of Eden, rendering them less as flesh & blood human forms and more as ethereal alien-types with a golden glow.
The dark side of the human experience is another theme that courses through the entirety of Aronofsky’s filmography, and the story of NOAH provides an opportunity to explore its very origins– murder, temptation, and the idea of Man’s Original Sin that led to his casting out from The Garden.
More specifically, Aronofsky explores sin as a stain that runs down through the generations, marking an entire line of people with a predetermined fate. If The Creator made mankind in his image as a perfect being, then the introduction of sin marks the point at which we became imperfect.
Sin is what separates God from his creations, and the protagonists of Aronofsky’s films are often found attempting to close that gap with logic while struggling to overcome their imperfections– PI’s Max Cohen labors to find the true name of God via mathematics; REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s scraggly group of heroic addicts used narcotics to seek enlightenment and euphoria; THE FOUNTAIN’s Tomas believes science is the key to immortality; THE WRESTLER’s Randy The Ram puts his body through the thresher for the worship of his fans; BLACK SWAN’s Nina Sayers works towards godliness in her mastery over her body.
NOAH continues this tradition by having its protagonist actually commune with his creator, risking the very future of humanity so that he can purge it of sin and start anew.
In both idea and execution, NOAH is most similar to THE FOUNTAIN— both are ambitious, big-budget indies about the cycle of death & rebirth as well as a direct reckoning between faith and reason.
By making NOAH in the first place, Aronofsky was flirting with the kind of disappointing reception and aura of “failure” that THE FOUNTAIN initially met with upon release.
Indeed, NOAH posed an even bigger risk, considering the significant creative liberties that Aronofsky took in adapting a section from what is easily the most scrutinized and sacred work of literature in human history.
On top of the inevitable religious controversy, NOAH faced criticism for its perceived white-washing, perpetuating the long cinematic tradition of casting all-white actors in roles that, historically-speaking, would have most definitely not been Caucasian.
The controversy might have even been of a higher profile, had Ridley Scott not stolen that particular spotlight with his release of EXODUS: GODS & KINGS that same year– a much more egregious display of white-washing considering his Caucasian leads were portraying ancient Egyptians.
Despite these controversies, NOAH outperformed expectations, earning mostly positive reviews and posting big numbers at the box office.
When all was said and done, NOAH had emerged as Aronofsky’s highest-grossing film to date, vanquishing any anxiety that it might be another disappointment like THE FOUNTAIN. With NOAH’s success, Aronofsky proved he could handle big-budget epics with the deft, assured touch that marked his indie thrillers.
He had seemingly found his groove, and was now poised to consistently deliver more of contemporary cinema’s most visceral and strikingly original creations.
Following the success of his 2014 feature, NOAH, director Darren Aronofsky once again turned to the commercial world to sustain himself as he prepped his next big effort.
This chapter of his career finds Aronofsky bringing his iconoclastic vision to powerhouse establishment outlets like The New York Times and high profile fashion brands like Hugo Boss while dialing down the individuality of his artistic aesthetic to better accommodate the commercial interests of his employers.
HUGO BOSS: POWER OF BOSS (2016)
Aronofsky’s prior work for Yves Saint-Laurent established the director as a sought-after talent in fashion marketing. In 2016, Hugo Boss enlisted him for “POWER OF BOSS”, a spot for their new men’s fragrance.
Starring the emerging actor Theo James, the spot exudes high-glamor and a slick, cosmopolitan vibe. The Weeknd’s darkly seductive single “High For This” throbs over sensual closeups of bodies in motion– hands caressing bare skin, lips brushing together, and so on.
The spot contains a brief allusion to BLACK SWAN, in that Aronofsky uses mirrors and windows as a framing device to suggest the idea of “the double”, often with the subject being reflected twice-over in the glass prism.
While it’s still a relatively anonymous spot, “POWER OF BOSS” further evidences Aronofsky’s ability to capture glossy, slick images in addition to the gritty, visceral visuals usually associated with his repertoire.
NEW YORK TIMES: THE TRUTH IS HARD (2017)
In 2017, Aronofsky was hired to direct a quartet of spots for the New York Times, celebrating the role that their photojournalists play in bringing the immediacy of the news home to their readers.
Only three of the four appear to be available for public view, with Aronofsky adopting the same style of execution for each: a series of rapid-fire snapshots punctuate stretches of black while the photographer delivers a voiceover monologue (filtered to sound like a telephone call) about his or her experience in the field.
At the end of each spot, Aronofsky settles on a singular image in particular, showing how it becomes the key image for the news article it accompanies. Aronofsky proves the right choice as the helmer of the spot, bringing his unique insights into the dark side of the human experience in the exploration of images featuring war & disease.
As of this writing, these pair of commercials represent Aronofsky’s most recently-released works, although he’s set to release his seventh feature film MOTHER! next month. A psychological horror starring Jennifer Lawrence, MOTHER! promises to chart territory similar to BLACK SWAN.
If early buzz is any indication, Aronofsky is set for yet another hit in a string of well-received genre pictures that have embodied his operational prime.
One of the lesser-talked about aspects of pursuing a career in filmmaking is the loss of that visceral or “magic” sensation that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place.
The ability to passively sit back and let ourselves get swept up in the story becomes hampered by an active deconstruction of narrative logic, performance, or mise-en-scene. Emotion & empathy takes a back seat to intellectual scrutiny, robbing us of the thrills or exhilaration that the filmmaker worked so hard for us experience.
Once in a while, however, a film comes along out of nowhere and lands with such increasingly-rare impact that we surrender the entirety of our senses to its power.
Despite marketing materials that heavily emphasized its supposedly-batshit narrative, I was not expecting such an outcome when I sat down to a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 feature MOTHER!— sure enough, however, I was so shaken by the film that I had to wander outside in a daze for nearly an hour.
I needed time to process what I’d just seen, but I knew I had loved every minute… and that most audiences would loathe it.
Aronofsky, of course, is no stranger to dramatically polarized reactions to his work— the foundation of his artistry is built upon it. Ever since the protagonist put a power drill to his head in his debut feature PI (1998), Aronofsky has sought to elicit visceral exhortations of shock and disgust from viewers.
The difference, however, between Aronofsky’s gruesome predilections and the torture porn titillation of, say, the SAW franchise, is the intimidating intelligence that drives it. The phrase “tortured artist” doesn’t seem particularly apt to describe Aronofsky; he typically comes across as a soft-spoken, buttoned-up intellectual in interviews.
Nevertheless, MOTHER! — easily the most ambitious marriage of his cerebral narrative approach and gut-wrenching visual flourishes — was born from a place of deep sadness and anguish on Aronofsky’s part (2).
Following the success of 2014’s NOAH, he reportedly turned his attentions towards a project that would be a first in his filmography: a film for children (3). As it turns out, it’s a bit difficult to write for children when their future isn’t as rosy as their cheeks.
Indeed, how could anyone, when the world is on fire, fascist authoritarianism is on the rise, and family dinners are spent blankly staring into the glow of smartphones? Aronofsky’s existential despair had built up like water against a dam, and the only way to relieve the pressure was to express it in the form of art.
Thus, MOTHER! was born, its first draft screenplay feverishly dashed out over the course of five mad days (whereas Aronofsky’s normal gestation period is measured in years (1)).
Like his script, Aronofsky’s latest Protozoa production came together exceedingly quickly, shepherded by his longtime producing partners Scott Franklin and Ari Handel over the course of a few months while Aronofsky conducted extensive rehearsals with his cast in a Brooklyn warehouse.
This gonzo strain of frenzied focus would carry on through to the shoot in Montreal and, ultimately, the finished product— itself a flaming phoenix of cinematic anarchy encompassing nothing less than the whole of human civilization.
The “plot” of MOTHER! is hard to describe, if only because it doesn’t operate on a straightforward narrative level. Every character and event is suffused with allegorical meaning, rooted in the self-contained setting of an isolated farmhouse that seemingly exists outside of both time and space.
Jennifer Lawrence anchors the film as the eponymous “Mother”, a woman who has given the entirety of herself over to her husband, played by Javier Bardem and identified only as “Him”. He is a poet, albeit a tortured one that suffers from a severe case of writer’s block.
Mother seems to exist only for Him, with no exterior or interior life of her own beyond fixing up their farmhouse and catering to his creative needs. Their fragile harmony begins to fray when a Man (Ed Harris) arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to stay the night while he passes through.
In letting Man in, however, Mother and Him unwittingly invite a cascading series of unimaginable, increasingly chaotic events that will come to include a funeral, a birth, and a fiery reckoning.
Aronofsky’s biblical and anthropological allusions aren’t exactly difficult to draw out, but the tidiness of their allegorical significance nevertheless resists close scrutiny.
In other words, Aronofsky gives us just enough detail to track the roles his characters play in the larger ur-narrative while leaving plenty of room for a variety of personal interpretations.
My own read of the film first requires further discussion of its technical construction and other thematic conceits, but there’s still plenty to remark about on the surface level of MOTHER!’s story, especially as it pertains to the performances.
If MOTHER! can be called a star vehicle for Lawrence, then it can also be said that Aronofsky never deviates from a cockpit view. Everything orbits around Lawrence and her tour-de-force performance— she is the Earth (or “Gaia”, as Aronofsky himself describes her), and all the other cast members are satellites circling past her periphery.
The fact that Lawrence goes barefoot throughout the entirety of the movie so as to emphasize her organic connection to the farmhouse (1) points to the rich level of detail and commitment that she gives to a character who, at least on paper, serves as a relatively-blank cypher for the audience to experience the film through.
A nurturer by nature, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, wanting nothing in return except for the love of her husband, Him.
Despite his personal malaise over his lack of productivity, he is ultimately an exceedingly warm and attentive man who is able to return her love in full and still have some left over for his increasingly-needy houseguests.
Indeed, he is accommodating to a fault, welcoming of strangers with open, trusting arms because he can’t help but revel in their praise for his writing. By turning his gaze away from Mother, he inadvertently puts her through all nine circles of Hell until she has nothing left to give him… and even then, he still requires more of her.
Despite their significant gap in age, Bardem’s casting complements Lawrence’s rather well, balancing her character’s youthful naïveté with a seasoned, almost-otherworldly gravitas.
Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, as Man and Woman respectively, are the disharmonious yin to Mother and Him’s yang. Their presence illuminates the unbridgeable gap between their host’s characters and proceeds to widen that chasm even further.
Identifying himself as a surgeon and teacher when he unexpectedly arrives in the middle of the night, Man proves himself a toxic presence in the house— it’s not enough that he’s simply intrusive, he also brings sickness into Mother and Him’s lives.
He’s constantly sneaking cigarettes, despite an alarmingly severe cough that speaks magnitudes about how little time he has left on this Earth. Woman proves equally abrasive, also arriving unexpectedly a day later and quickly overtaking Mother’s energies with her icy sexual aggressiveness and high-grade alcoholism.
Real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleason play their two adult sons, the former a slimy misogynist and the latter a wiry, spoiled twerp who arrives in a red-hot rage over learning he’s been cheated out of his inheritance.
It’s at this point that MOTHER!’s cast loses control of its contained chamber-drama nature, with strangers multiplying at an alarming rate until the house is absolutely stuffed. Most are nameless extras, but Aronofksy notably casts Kristin Wiig against-type as Him’s corporate-y publisher, credited only as “Herald”.
Indeed, a quick glance at IMDB’s cast listing for MOTHER! further shades out the biblical/mythical connotations of his allegorical ambitions, featuring bit-part characters named Cupbearer, Fool, Whisperer, Penitent and Devourer, among so many others.
Aronofsky’s technical execution reinforces his vision of MOTHER! as a 2-hour stress attack. Once again working his trusted director of photography Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky returns to the 2.35:1 16mm film format that lent so much visceral grit and organic weight to previous films like THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2010).
These films, and now MOTHER!, etch into stone the idea that Aronofsky is not cut out to be a studio filmmaker; he thrives in the indie environment, where a smaller production footprint affords him plenty of nimbleness and his affections for lo-fi filmmaking formats and techniques are appreciated.
The 16mm gauge in particular has come to serve as something of a calling card for Aronofsky, with its amplified grain texture allowing his work to stand out amongst the hordes of slick, yet inescapably sterile, digital content that populates our screens today.
Its deployment in MOTHER! echoes the earthiness of the story while capturing an ethereal aura in the imperfection of its chemistry. A lot of ink has been spilled about digital‘s increasing ability to match the quality of film to the point that, to the average observer, there is no discernible difference.
However, the fact remains that film is a chemical process whereas digital is an electronic one; one could shoot the exact same composition using the exact same lens and lighting setup, but the two resulting images will always be fundamentally different.
Aronofsky and Libatique understand this, using the increasingly-minute quality of celluloid’s distinguishing aspects as a storytelling tool— the volatile, unreplicable alchemy of exposing grain crystals to light (as opposed to capturing light onto an electronic sensor) imbues the light itself with life; a palpable, fleeting luminosity that underscores MOTHER!’s very existence.
As such, the quality of light on display throughout MOTHER! takes on an ethereal beauty: dim, cool daylight and the warm, sensual amber of incandescent practicals come nightfall. This is, of course, before Hell itself arrives at Mother’s doorstep and bombards the farmhouse with a fusillade of garish fluorescents, ash-choked moonlight, and searing fire.
MOTHER! succeeds at generating an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere through a series of complementary artistic decisions passed along through the entirety of the production pipeline. The film is shot almost exclusively handheld, immediately creating a present-tense realism and a restless energy.
To better unify the film’s perspective to that of his protagonist, Aronofsky and Libatique limit their coverage to 3 basic setups— the first being a closeup composition that is always tracking Mother’s facial performance as she moves throughout the farmhouse, the second being corresponding over-the-shoulder angles that aim to establish her spatial relationship to the events she’s witnessing, and the third being direct POV shots through her eyes.
The result is an effect akin to hyper tunnel vision, propelling Mother and the audience through a narrow space while intensifying the surrounding chaos.
Philip Messina’s production design further evokes the growing claustrophobia in his vision of the farmhouse itself, which incorporates a recurring octagonal motif both in its structure as well as various decorational elements.
An exercise in the marriage of interesting aesthetic design and thematic underscoring, the heavy usage of the octagon shape is quite appropriate to Aronofsky’s narrative.
The shape was employed by many ancient civilizations, who associated the number eight with the idea of “rebirth” or “renewal”, further entangling the relationship between the earthly and the divine in its merging of the square and the circle.
MOTHER!’s allegorical conceits deal heavily in the language of rebirth, suggesting an infinitely-repeating cycle of creation & destruction that echoes scientific theories about the perpetual expanding & contracting of the universe.
On a visceral level, the farmhouse’s octagonal shape serves to muddle the audience’s bearings, constantly subverting Aronofsky’s deliberate use of extended tracking shots that follow Mother through various rooms.
It’s a rather inspired idea, using the visual language & continuity of motion typically employed to establish spatial orientation, but within a form factor that actively obscures our sense of geography.
We always know what room Mother is in on an intellectual level, but we can never quite discern where she is in relation to the rest of the house— the corners always seem to be closing in on themselves… and by extension, us.
That Messina renders the farmhouse interiors in various neutral shades (similarly echoed in the clothes worn by the characters) results in an abstractified, relatively-colorless environment that boosts the narrative’s metaphorical, “outside of time” qualities.
In the absence of color within the frame itself, Aronofsky uses the remaining tools in his arsenal to give MOTHER! its tactile depth and contrast. This includes aforementioned elements like lighting and a neutral color palette, but also post-production tools like visual effects, editing, and sound design.
The VFX work goes a long way towards establishing the farmhouse itself as a living, breathing entity that Mother is intimately connected to— she’s able to sense a delicate heartbeat behind the drywall and plaster, and can glimpse fleeting, skeletal visions of charred woodwork that pulse throughout the house like heavy breaths.
There’s also an arresting image of a lightbulb pooling with blood until it explodes and sends plasma splattering everywhere.
Returning editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a swift pace that builds exponentially in tandem with a hyper-aggressive sound mix, resulting in an effect that’s not unlike being caught within the whirlpool of a flushing toilet… spinning faster and faster as we circle the drain.
Notably, MOTHER! features no music whatsoever until Patti Smith covers “The End Of The World” over the end titles. An original score by the late Johan Johansson was planned, and even produced, but nixed as early as the rough cut stage (4) when he and Aronofksy came to the conclusion that the film worked better without music.
Their decision — an admirable display of creative restraint — proves to be the right one; there’s something infinitely more disturbing about MOTHER!’s spiral descent into madness without the accompaniment of bombastic music cues constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.
The absence of score allows us to better witness the narrative from Mother’s viewpoint while denying the sense of safety and remove that stems from theatrical artifice.
If the entirety of Aronofsky’s feature output can be boiled down to a singular, unifying thematic idea, then it stands to reason said theme is the collision of logic and faith.
From PI’s besieged mathematician to NOAH’s eponymous biblical hero, the arc of each Aronofsky protagonist passes through this prism, giving the director an avenue to approach religion and belief from an intellectual standpoint.
Having been raised, as he describes, in a non-practicing, “culturally” Jewish household, Aronofsky uses his art to exhibit his primarily-anthropological interest in religion and its influence on human behavior.
As previously mentioned, MOTHER! stands as the arguable apex of this career-long excavation, its allegorical storytelling approach being the reason for its very existence.
In crafting a story about a woman under siege by recurrent tidal waves of hostile humanity within her own home, Aronofsky expresses a cinematic lament over our apparent powerlessness to curb runaway climate change in the face of self-enriching presidential administrations and pollution-friendly corporations, all the while tying in the grand sweep of civilized history to demonstrate how our self-destructive tendencies are dyed in the wool.
In other words, our ability and apparent willingness to eradicate ourselves is a feature of the species— not a bug.
As mentioned before, MOTHER!’s narrative isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead assigning allegorical correlation with both religious and world history to make a larger statement on the human condition and our failure to be responsible stewards of the Earth (spoilers below).
As the personification of the Earth itself, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, inviting her husband and houseguests to take advantage of her generosity until she has nothing left to give.
The events of the film put her under significant duress, manifest at several junctures in the form of increasingly-violent tremors that push Mother to the floor. These moments resemble earthquakes, illustrating the raw destructive power that lurks underneath.
Bardem’s character stands in for God, his profession as a poet/writer alluding to The Almighty’s unfettered creativity. The arrival of Man’s character signifies Adam, an already-compromised creation whose sickness alludes to the frailty of human life.
It’s no coincidence that the night after Mother accidentally catches a glimpse of a vicious scar over Man’s rib, Woman arrives on her doorstep. Him’s office can be read as the Garden of Eden, his treasured crystal artifact becoming an object of obsessive temptation for Man and Woman not unlike the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.
We later learn this crystal is forged from the charred remains of the previous Mother’s heart, underscoring that her love and generosity is a precious gift that’s easily destroyed.
The hot-blooded murder of Man’s son by his other son is an obvious reference to the biblical story of Cain & Abel, while the boy’s subsequent funeral, attended by an increasingly-populous and out-of-control congregation, represents both humanity’s growing numbers and its wanton sinfulness.
The first half of the film culminates when some particularly-careless “mourners” accidentally rip Mother’s unbraced sink away from the wall and unleash a torrent of water that clears out the house; this can be read as an allegory for the Great Flood in the Old Testament, in which God drowned out his compromised creations and wiped the slate clean.
The ensuing argument between Mother and Him leads to their making up via making love, and Mother wakes up the following morning with the supernatural realization that she’s already pregnant.
Overcome with love and a regained appreciation for life, Him is struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and immediately scribbles out the first new poem he’s written in years— a New Testament, if you will… the beginning of a new covenant with humanity based on compassion and forgiveness rather than tempestuous wrath.
The resulting text single-handedly resurrects his career, drawing in a growing tide of admirers whose lives he touched with the beauty of his words. This second half of the film is where the narrative really plays into the thematic throughline of Aronofsky’s work: his anthropological fascination with the bleakest, darkest aspects of the human experience.
Mother’s grip on the situation quickly spirals out of control as people keep coming— an endless wave of increasingly-frenzied fanatics who erupt into fistfights with each other and steal Mother and Him’s belongings as if they were precious artifacts to be hoarded.
In selfishly ransacking a farmhouse they’ve come to regard as a holy temple to their creator poet, they suggest the compounding dangers of rampant overpopulation and religious fanaticism.
Before Mother can kick each trespasser out of her house, the crowd has seemingly merged into a singular glob of chaos— a parasite or disease that is quickly devouring the Earth.
Aronofsky takes an evident truth — that it’s in our nature to destroy beautiful things — and maps it out over a harrowing, mind-melting escalation that sees each room in the house become a diorama for the horrors of the 20th century: famine, concentration camps, human trafficking, brutal riots, war, and terrorism.
By refusing to deviate from Mother’s viewpoint, Aronofsky expertly orchestrates a sense of overwhelming chaos and incomprehensible panic, evoking the deep existential horror that comes from both the loss of control and the absence of logic.
MOTHER!’s steep nosedive into the bowels of hell culminates in the birth of a baby boy, heralded as something of a Messiah by the frenzied masses below.
In what is easily the most disturbing, gut-churning moment in a film already stuffed with images of sudden blunt-force trauma, exploding jawlines, and even a blood-squirting toilet creature, Aronofsky easily outdoes the body horror of previous films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) or BLACK SWAN by showing the crowd seize the newborn and feverishly rip it apart into bite-sized chunks.
This is a horrifically-literal echo of Communion, the sacrament celebrated by Catholics at every mass with the consumption of bread that’s regarded as “the body of Christ”.
That Him is all too ready to forgive the crowd for this unspeakable act reminds us of the Christian God’s compassion, knowingly sending his only son to slaughter so that humanity could be saved.
Mother, however, does not share Him’s compassion— the loss of her baby sends her into a murderous rage, culminating in her burning the whole house down on top of everyone (likely an allusion to runaway global warming, the inescapable terminus of humanity’s total domination over the planet).
While Aronofsky presents the majority of MOTHER! through a Western perspective, his final reveal draws from Eastern thought— specifically, the idea of reincarnation.
Evoking THE FOUNTAIN’s ruminations on the endless cycle of death & rebirth, MOTHER! ends with Him digging Mother’s heart from her charred body and forging it into a new incarnation of the precious crystal he keeps on display in his study.
As a new day dawns, the house builds itself back up from the ashes, and a new Mother (played by a different actress with a fleeting resemblance to Lawrence) wakes up in her bed just as she did at the beginning of the film.
With this final beat, Aronofksy alludes to the theoretical reincarnation of the universe itself: a continual expansion and contraction of the cosmos that provides a rather-tidy answer to the question of what preceded The Big Bang.
All of this is extremely heady stuff, to be sure, and poses quite the challenge in connecting with an audience that mostly regard movies as an opportunity to switch off their brains for two hours.
As it turns out, said audiences — especially those of the American variety — really weren’t up for an evening of sensory overload and confrontational anthropology. MOTHER! earned itself an exceedingly rare “F” CinemaScore, reflecting the general repulsion manifest in its relatively-meager worldwide gross of $44M over its $30M budget.
The film’s critical reception, however, tells a much different story: after premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, jurors nominated MOTHER! for their highest honor, the Golden Lion. Several prominent critics from Rolling Stone, The Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian subsequently issued rave reviews, applauding its allegorical audacity.
This isn’t to say that other reviews weren’t negative — indeed, there were plenty of critics who were all too eager to file scathing notices. If anything, MOTHER!’s polarized reception speaks to the success of Aronofsky’s efforts.
The repulsion is the point; when confronted with a visceral portrait of humanity’s capacity for (and long history of) atrocity, we should be disgusted and horrified.
Our collective desire to be & do better is the only way to break the cycle of chaos and bloodshed that will ultimately end in the boiling annihilation of the only home we’ve ever known. Despite its perceived “failure” as a commercial product, MOTHER! succeeds in hammering its message home, and in so doing, confirms Aronofsky’s legacy as a creator of transgressive & fearlessly independent cinema.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To support Cameron’s work – Subscribe on Special.tv.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———