[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the films Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah.]
Darren Aronofsky is a writer and director who gained a reputation early for making visually engaging films that aren’t so much about the characters their stories portray as they are about presenting intense philosophical inspections of concepts that exceed the understanding of any one individual. This has led some to criticize Aronofsky’s work as style over substance, but the reality of the matter is that the style is the primary medium by which Aronofsky communicates his substance, rather than through conventional narrative plotting or structure. Aronofsky is fascinated with the divine, with humanity’s pursuit of higher purpose and the futility inherent in flying too close to the sun.
Interestingly, Aronofsky’s first film is simultaneously the most direct in its expression of this concept, yet it helped cement him as a visually unique director. 1998’s Pi—technically titled π, but I have decided to spell it out for easier reading—is the story of a math genius named Max who is obsessed with finding order in a world of chaos, random chance, and probability. He is alienated from the people around him by his own obsession and antisocial behavior, yet is seen to desire human contact as much as anyone. When he encounters a mathematical sequence that causes computers to shut down and is desired by both economic and religious entities to manipulate to their own ends, Max comes to realize that he may hold a divine secret: God’s true name and the answer to life’s mysteries.
The film is shot on grainy black and white stock that emphasizes Max’s binary perception of the world, but also creates an otherworldly dimension to the narrative that might not seem so surreal if shot conventionally. What is really intriguing about Pi though is how it ends: Max decides that his knowledge of God and his link to the divine is not worth the cost to his sanity or the potential impact it could have on humankind, so he literally drills the knowledge out of his own skull. Remarkably enough, he ends up fine, but without the mathematical knowledge that kept him separate from the rest of humanity. It’s in the final scene that we first see a smile cross Max’s face, as Aronofsky shows us that knowledge of God may be powerful, but it comes at the cost of our humanity.
He continues this theme—albeit much more figuratively—with his follow-up feature that would propel him into popular consciousness, 2000’s Requiem For A Dream. In this film, Aronofsky follows a series of characters all in pursuit of the same thing: The ultimate high. But while that high is literally represented by the drugs the characters take, their motivations for becoming involved in drugs demonstrate aspiration for something beyond the mundanity of everyday life. Heroin addicts Harry, Marion, and Tyrone all want to make it big in the drug trade, to prove to themselves and others that they are more than just junkies. Sara, meanwhile, takes weight-loss amphetamines to become a guest on a television program she obsesses over.
What these plot threads have in common is that every character has a warped perception of what a better life entails, primarily because their pursuits are inextricably linked to their chemical addictions. In turn, pursuit of their heavenly paradises plunges them further into their own personal hells, as Harry loses an arm to infection, Marion loses her identity to exhibitionist prostitution, Tyrone is subjected to a hard prison sentence, and Sara slips into psychosis and is subjected to electroshock therapy. They desire to be more than their imperfect selves, yet instead of rising up from their addictions and faults they fall further away from the divinity they so crave.
After the success of his previous two films, it didn’t seem that Aronofsky could do any wrong, yet he himself may have flown too close to the sun with his third entry, 2006’s The Fountain. Polarizing even among fans of Aronofsky’s work, The Fountain is perhaps the best example in the argument that Aronofsky values style over substance. In a plot that intercuts a meta-fictional narrative of a conquistador’s quest to find the tree of life and a New Age space traveler’s quest through the stars to preserve the life of a tree, at its core the film is about a researcher attempting to find a cure for cancer in order to save his wife from her failing health. It’s a film that perhaps attempts too much in trying to portray all three narratives as being one coherent story, but it is undoubtedly a visual spectacle that pushes the boundaries of its $35 million budget, and it would be a disservice to not consider what it is exactly that the film is trying to convey.
To take each story in turn, they all demonstrate different ways of coping with death and accepting that the quest for immortality is both a fool’s errand and is not desirable. The conquistador does find the tree of life, but is ultimately punished for his transgression when the tree allows plant life to bloom within him rather than grant him invulnerability. The space traveler fails in his attempts to save the tree, but is ultimately at peace with his and the tree’s life ending as it is alluded to that they will reunite in some sort of afterlife. The modern-day scientist, however, is the most fleshed-out of the bunch as he struggles with the prospect of losing his wife, fails to cure her in time, and then vows to cure death itself before coming to realize that the value of life is in living it, not just preserving it for life’s own sake. His pursuit of the divine ultimately ends with him realizing that the worldly is inherently more desirable, and the parallel stories of the past and future adventurers reflect that.
After the lukewarm critical and audience reception to The Fountain, Aronofsky took a break from writing and instead opted to direct films that spoke to his fascination with perfection and the deleterious effects its pursuit has on people. The first of these films is 2008’s The Wrestler, the story of an aging professional wrestler who continues to abuse steroids and ignore his doctor’s advice in order to maintain his fledgling status as an icon in his field. We see how this pursuit has left him alone, with only an alienated daughter whom he fails to connect with and a singular friend in a stripper who also nears her professional expiration date. The mundanities of the wrestler’s day job wear on him, as he only feels alive while he’s performing. That’s why when he suffers a heart attack and a doctor tells him that another strenuous wrestling match will likely kill him, the wrestler must decide whether one last chance to feel alive is worth dying for.
The Wrestler is ultimately a character study of a man who found purpose in life by being a larger-than-life figure, but being such a figure is not only not sustainable or permanent, but it also sapped the life from him faster than if he had lived a more humble existence. But his life on the wrestling mat is defined by the roar of the crowd and the theatrical feeling of adoration that accompanies it, despite the physical damage he must endure to achieve that cultural divinity. Aronofsky didn’t need to resort to extensive special effects or visual symbolism to show this character’s attempt at metaphorical godhood; the story works well enough on its own merits to make it a veritable addition to Aronofsky’s canon.
This theme continues with 2010’s Black Swan, a similar story of a young woman seeking to be the best ballet dancer she can be, but ends up self-destructing in the process. Nina is cast as the Swan Queen in her troupe’s production of Swan Lake, but while she is able to master the role of the controlled, restrained White Swan with no difficulty, she finds herself unable to unleash the ferocity and abandon necessary to play the role of the Black Swan. What results is either a descent into madness or a rise to perfection, depending on your point of view. Nina begins to notice pieces of her body falling apart and tearing off to reveal more avian characteristics, and she discovers a sexual attraction to a fellow dancer that lures her away from her controlled and meek persona, as well as from the grasp of her controlling, vicariously-living mother.
What Aronofsky suggests is that perfection lies in embracing both the light and dark aspects of oneself and that entirely repressing the dark side is as self-destructive as letting it run rampant. Nina isn’t a character accustomed to letting her inner darkness out, so as we watch the symbolic representation of the Black Swan gradual break free of its white prison, we’re also to understand that Nina is losing her mind in the process. The film constantly uses mirrors to portray a duality in Nina that ultimately leads her to attack what she thinks is a murderous rival, only to end up stabbing herself. But in doing so she achieves a perfect performance, coming into her own as both the White and Black Swans and dying in the process. For Nina, perfection is akin to madness, making her just another tragic victim to Aronofsky’s view of humanity’s relationship to the divine.
It was here that Aronofsky returned to writing and brought another very literal story of the divine in his Biblical epic, 2013’s Noah. At its core a retelling of the Abrahamic story of Noah and the Great Flood, Aronofsky is less interested in the logistics of getting two of every animal to coexist on a boat than he is in the futility of a mortal to attempt an understanding of a higher being’s will. Noah’s communications with the divine are all in the form of abstract representationalist collages, depicting the Garden of Eden and Cain’s betrayal of Abel in quick flashes that ultimately lead to images of death by water. With the help of angels encased in stone bodies who no longer hear their Creator’s voice, Noah determines that he must build his arc in order to preserve God’s creations.
However, as the rains wipe out the attacking armies of Cain’s descendants and the remnants of a corrupt humanity are left to drown outside, Noah’s family questions whether Noah is right in his interpretation of the Creator’s will. Operating under the belief that they are to be the last of humanity and that this is why the Creator entrusted this task to him, Noah must struggle with not only the choice he made in not letting his fellow men aboard his life-preserving ship, but the choice of whether to let his pregnant daughter-in-law’s children survive. The Creator is silent as Noah and his captive family drift the surface of the flood, so being cut off from the divine he must interpret what is right on his own. Noah’s quest isn’t so much about becoming divine himself as it is in coming to grips with his own limitations as a mortal.
Taking these six films in mind, what can we say that Darren Aronofsky is teaching us? Well, first and foremost, pursuit of personal divinity is futile if one wishes to live a happy, well-adjusted life. Obsession is a means to self-destruction, and perfection is a trap that lures in fools and the misguided to a life of wasted potential. However, for some, touching that perfection for even an instant is worth the sacrifice and toll it will take upon them, for in their eyes it is the performative act of achieving that perfection that makes life worth living. And finally, even if you don’t seek to be perfect yourself, your judgment is not subservient to that of a perfect power. Humanity may not be divine or perfect beings, but we need to be comfortable in the fact that we never will be if we are to survive and thrive as individuals.
Darren Aronofsky’s films are as imperfect as any talented filmmaker’s, but his films acknowledge that perfection isn’t and shouldn’t be the goal—rather, it is the intensity and enjoyment of the lives we have to lead that gives us meaning.