What distinguishes a low budget black and white thriller like Christopher Nolan’s Following and a low budget black and white thriller like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, is plot and human emotion. Following had a much looser plot that they pulled off well and was not aiming for the same psychological depth as Pi. Yet, the film suffers from style over substance. Christopher Nolan has previously suffered from style over substance with the films, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. Style over substance doesn’t only apply to Nolan but also to many other first time directors. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing because most directors’ debut films are often the starting point for greater films to come. This is what sets Pi apart from other debut films, how well it was made not just as a debut film but as a film overall. That says something about Darren Aronofsky as a director. In fact, Aronofsky won the award for Best Director at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Darren Aronofsky’s films are often characterized for their disturbing and surreal nature and graphic violence. Although I don’t usually have a problem with that, Darren Aronofsky’s films have always turned me off. This is because of rumors I have heard about Aronofsky as a person and the way he looks. I have always thought that Aronofosky seemed like a strange guy, which was also a turn-off. Having never even seen a film by him and judging only by books, this was very unfair and shallow of me. After watching Pi, I will surely be not only giving Darren Aronofsky a chance but his films a chance too. What better a time than a few days before the release of Aronfsky’s controversial retelling of the biblical story of Noah and The Ark from the Book of Genesis, Noah? Russell Crowe stars as Noah.
So in honor of Aronofsky’s latest film, let’s look back at his first film.
The plot for Aronofsky’s 1998 film, Pi is both simple yet at the same time complex. The story follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) as a brilliant yet socially inept young number theorist with the belief that everything in the world can be made clear using numbers. After making stock market predictions on his computer that surprisingly ends up being correct and through meeting Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a Hasidic Jew who studies Jewish mysticism using number theory, Max begins to mathematically unravel something much bigger than he than he could have imagined. Meanwhile, a group of Wall Street executives begin to pressure Max for his information of stock market patterns. Throughout all of this, Max slowly begins to mentally and physically unravel. This plot sounds like an average “man discovers something bigger than himself and must face consequences” or “man slowly goes crazy” kind of a movie but there is more to it. The accuracy of the film’s mathematical information makes it a more intelligent film. I would be lying if I said that this does not also make the film a bit confusing to those, like myself, who are not as well versed in mathematics. This requires more focus while watching the film. For me, at times it was not even quite clear to me what Max was trying to even achieve, but the film is so gripping that this can be forgiven.
As mentioned above, the film is Darren Aronofsky’s first film. It was independently made on a small budget of $60,000 and most of the actors were unknowns. The film was also captured in black and white. While the lack of budget is noticeable, Aronofsky and his crew use what technology they had to create something very impressive. The chilling black and white not only adds to grit to the film but it fits the themes of darkness and obsession within the film perfectly. The directing is also very strong for a first film. Nothing Aronofsky does is random. The disorienting shots are meant to be disorienting. Camera angles that are odd are meant to be odd, etc. The cinematography itself is also very fitting. At times the shots are disorienting when Max is running or experiencing a hallucination. They can also create suspense during his hallucinations as well.
The editing is edgy and adversely quick. It can also slow down adding the perfect haunting effect. The one thing that is not necessarily bad about the film but I found made it lose a bit of the power of realism is the ending which contains religious and supernatural elements. The ending to the film is still strong but it does not mesh perfectly with the first hour of the film. Last but not least, the script is very well written. A mistake that many first time screenwriters make is trying to make dialogue sound as cool as they can and sacrifice strong and realistic characters and good suspense with it. Aronofsky does not make this mistake. The script is very clever and features some good dialogue but it is subtle. That is one word that really describes this film; subtle. Almost everything about this film is subtly good. It does not jump out at you like a big blockbuster film but you are aware of it.
The acting although not Oscar worthy is very impressive. What makes the acting so impressive is how well everyone is cast. Sean Gulette is very believable as obsessed and awkward Max Cohen. Ben Shenkman is excellent as the surprisingly upbeat young Hasistic. Lenny Meyer, Mark Margolis (best known for his excellent portrayal of Tio Salamanca on Breaking Bad, shines as Max’s elderly former math teacher and only companion. Sol, portrayed by Pamela Hart, devilishly plays the role of a superficial Wall Street executive who will not take no as an answer.
The music in this film is both an asset and a curse. Before he gained recognition as a film composer, Clint Mansell was the lead singer for alternative rock/indie rock band, Pop Will Eat Itself. His first film score and first of many collaborations with Aronofsky came with Pi. The score is super-charged techno music that also relies on the use of drums much of the time. In many scenes this really adds to the film and fits it perfectly. Then in other scenes such as one where Max is simply walking on a New York City Street and music that sounds like a Tony Hawk game from the 90’s is accompanying it, it becomes distracting. But generally the music enhances more than it detracts from the film.
This film is very weird. But this is not a bad thing. Like most films by Darren Aronofsky, this film features many bizarre and violent scenes (primarily the hallucination scenes) that may turn off viewers. But the film’s weirdness really defines it. It almost stops feeling like you are watching a film at some point and start feeling like a nightmare you might have after a tough math exam. The film drifts in and out of reality seemingly at random and the effect really works. As opposed to alienating the crowd, it compels. This movie is a creepy head scratcher. Also this film is kind of like a long math problem that has no answer much like Max’s problem. It is confusing, aggravating, and seemingly hopeless. This shared sense of emotions only make you associate more with what Max is striving to do.
For a first time filmmaker or aspiring filmmaker, this film is kind of a marvel. A disturbing film about a man slowly deteriorating filmed in black and white is not exactly an original idea. Fast paced editing and techno music is not exactly an original idea. Using hallucinations and dream sequences is not exactly an original idea. But Aronofsky nails it. In just 1 hour and 25 minutes, I felt like I got to more or less know the characters well, understand the decisions they made, and what they are going through. This film has style but it has substance too. This film is an uncomfortable film to watch at times but it is more entertaining than alienating. I find that when a film wants to be disturbing but does not have any good characters or writing and does not set anything up before the disturbing things begin to happen, it is a real turn-off. When the disturbing elements come in and you are already invested in the plot that is when disturbing themes are a turn on. Making an eerie atmosphere is one of the hardest things to do in a film WELL. The film uses a lot of symbolism, surreal settings, and it’s setting to create its atmosphere. This film has helped me really put my finger on specific film motif that I have noticed; ants. Films such as Salvador Dali’s surreal short film, Un Chien Andalou and Park Chan-Wook’s thriller, Oldboy, feature ants as a metaphor for human decay, loneliness, and insanity. Ants are symbolic throughout Pi and although their presence is never truly explained, there presence surely indicates something about what Max is going through.
Pi is not the greatest film ever made and it probably is not even Aronofsky’s best film, but as a debut film, it is excellent. This film’s length makes it a very, very tightly made film in the field of direction, writing, cinematography, music and acting. It neither has too little to offer or too much to comprehend. It is a very solid film and if you are looking for a reliably good surreal thriller, this is absolutely the film for you.
Pi is available on Netflix Instant until April 1st and is available for DVD rental anytime.
Noah comes out this Friday (March 28th) in both conventional and IMAX theaters.