Here’s a new installment in the favorite director’s blogathon: Darren Aronofsky. I finally saw mother!, which I consider his best, though I understand why it’s so polarizing.
1. mother! 2017. 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose (quite literally), and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which drowns the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of Mother Nature, who does nothing but love and give until people provoke her wrath by messing everything up. By the end, the indoor house has become a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize mother’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.
2. Requiem for a Dream. 2000. 5 stars. Considered by most to be Aronofsky’s best, and for obvious reasons. The performances are staggering. I’ve worshiped Ellen Burstyn ever since The Exorcist, but she completely outdoes herself here, playing an unhappy widow (Sara) who gets swallowed by the forces of drug addiction. Sara sits alone in her apartment and does little more than fantasize about being a guest on talk-show TV. Obsessed with her figure, she become addicted to weight-loss amphetamines, and descends into a spiral of psychosis. Meanwhile her son (Harry) and his girlfriend (Marion) become heroin addicts as they chase the unrealistic dreams of youth. All are crushed in the end, with Sara becoming a near vegetable from electroshock therapy, Harry getting his needle-infected arm is amputated; and Marion becoming a sex slave to make ends meet. The film itself is a bad drug trip, and one I find myself revisiting almost against my will.
3. Noah. 2014. 4 ½ stars. Widely dismissed as Aronofsky’s most commercial effort, I find it a fascinating work for the way it marries gnostic myths with the biblical accounts. It’s the story of the flood in a Lord of the Rings style, and it works since the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth, the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. But it’s also a very serious film that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide, and it has the balls to portray Noah as a merciless figure when he seeks to carry out the Creator’s will (as he sees it) by intending to kill his daughter’s babies. Noah is far better than cinephiles would have you believe, and it has plenty to say along with other great religious films.
4. The Fountain. 2006. 4 ½ stars. This is one of those box-office bombs that later acquired a cult following — like Blade Runner and Event Horizon. It meditates on love and death, and speaks to mortality better than most films that dare try. The narrative follows three stories set in different timelines: in 1500, a conquistador (Tomas) during the Inquisition searches for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for his queen (Isabel); in 2000, a neuroscientist (Tom Creo) studies brain tumors and tries to save his dying wife (Izzi); and in 2500, an astronaut (Tommy) drifts through space to a dying star. Hugh Jackman plays all three “Tom” roles, and Rachel Weisz takes on the role of Queen Isabel and Izzy. Through these threads, what emerges is that acceptance is the only way to defeat death, and fighting to keep that which you love does more harm than good.
5. The Wrestler. 2008. 4 stars. The mundane style of this film is unique in the otherwise surreal Aronofsky canon, and some consider it his best effort after Requiem for a Dream. I don’t think it’s that good, but I will say that Mickey Rourke’s performance is extraordinary. He plays a professional wrestler deteriorating in health (thanks to body-building drugs), losing his fan base, and who must work in a supermarket to supplement his income. On top of this he is hated by his daughter who he can’t ever make time for, and Rachel Evans’ performance is as good as Rourke’s. The film treats the subject of wrestling and all its absurd fake elements in the honest way that makes you actually appreciate the sport and the toll taken on professional wrestlers. If I find it slightly overrated, I can’t deny I end up caring deeply for Rourke’s character.
6. Black Swan. 2010. 3 ½ stars. I adored Black Swan when it first came out but it hasn’t aged well on me. Like The Wrestler it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and half-succeeds in drawing me into its subculture, showing an individual who is willing to die for sport or athletic art. But where The Wrestler was grounded in gritty realism, Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes, and sometimes too much for its own good. On repeat viewings these elements seem less profound. Natalie Portman’s performance is impressive, however: Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life. It’s a forceful look at a damaged woman, but not one of my Aronofsky favorites.
7. Pi. 1998. 3 stars. First efforts are often amateurish, and Pi is no exception. It’s the film that Aronofsky needed to build experience on for his later gems. The editing is rough, and the performances are entirely forgettable. It succeeds more by its concepts though not entirely. If math is the language of the universe, Pi suggests, then nature can be expressed in numbers and mathematical patterns, which could be used to predict almost anything (such as the stock market). Ideas like that were too grand for Aronofsky’s limited skills at this point in his career. His reach exceeded his grasp.