Darren Aronofsky is probably one of the most interesting, unconventional, modern American filmmakers working in the present time. Known for his surrealist, often disturbing, melodramatic plots, usually in the genre of drama and psychological horror, Aronofsky’s films can be seen as character studies of ambitious protagonists driven by their obsession with finding a meaning to their lives, in the personal or professional realm.
His films are often shot from the protagonist’s point of view, giving us a glimpse of the character’s usually unstable psyche. Using Expressionist style in imagery as well as music (usually by composer Clint Mansell), Aronofsky creates an unsettling atmosphere in his films, where the drama plays out. His films can be frustrating and exhausting, but they leave a lasting impression on you and will make you think about the strengths and weaknesses of human lives, human ambitions and downfalls, and how we try to escape our realities.
7. The Fountain (2006)
Aronofsky’s third feature film, The Fountain, is a romance drama starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. It interweaves three storylines, each about two characters played by Jackman and Weisz bonded by love across time and space- a conquistador and his queen, a modern-day scientist/doctor and his cancer-stricken wife, and a traveler in a spiritual journey carrying the memory of his lost love.
It combines elements of fantasy, science-fiction, history, and spirituality, and explores the tragic human fascination with immortality. It is probably Aronofsky’s most ambitious project in terms of its plot and theme but unfortunately fails in its execution. The storyline gets confusing, the two actors fail to create a chemistry between their characters and, most importantly, the core theme of the film fails to develop to fruition.
6. Noah (2014)
Another one of Arnofosky’s ambitious projects, Noah is an epic Biblical drama inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Noah dreams of a deluge, sent by the Creator who is angry with the dismal corrupt state of humans, which will wipe off the entire human race from Earth, to restart a new generation. Aronofsky presents a dark and gloomy version of the Biblical tale.
Noah, played by Russell Crowe, is tortured by his visions and by the duty entrusted to him by God. His vehement absolutism alienates him from his family; he is not just shown as a faithful servant of God but arrogant in his detestation of human beings. Although visually spectacular, Noah ultimately does not live up to its potential. Combining various myths of the tale does not help in portraying the story and ends up overcomplicating it at times. Additionally, the use of fantasy elements takes away the gravitas of the tale.
5. mother! (2017)
Aronofsky’s latest film, mother! is a psychological horror starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in leading roles. It follows the story of a young woman, the titular “mother” (Lawrence), living with her husband “Him” (Bardem), an acclaimed poet in search of his lost inspiration, in his newly rebuilt childhood country home which was destroyed in a fire. The arrival of two strangers, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, sets in chain a series of events leading to the ultimate breakdown and annihilation of mother.
The film is, as Lawrence stated in an interview, a Biblical allegory of “the rape and torment of Mother Earth”. “mother” represents Mother Nature, “Him” represents God, the two strangers are Adam and Eve, and their two children Cain and Abel. The child born from “mother” is Jesus. mother! explores the devastation caused by humans on earth in the name of development and technology. The film is extremely unsettling, with graphic depiction of violence. There is no background music, just minimal incorporated noises in the house. The score is just silence, thus adding to the already unnerving aura of the film.
4. The Wrestler (2008)
What happens when a wrestler finds out he can no longer wrestle? In this sports drama film, Randy “The Ram ” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke, is an aging professional wrestler, who struggles to keep up with his career as his failing health and waning fame catch up with him. Rourke gives a brilliant performance in this Oscar-nominated role as the struggling athlete, trying to come to terms with his reality.
Aronofsky gives a raw, hard-hitting depiction of the emotional conflict of a person who can no longer find meaning in his life. Shot in a gritty, hand-held documentary style, The Wrestler is bloody and brutal but also gives a glimpse of Randy’s life outside the fighting arena as he tries to reconcile with his daughter as well as attempts a romance with a stripper. The Wrestler explores ambition and desperation in Randy and how circumstances lead him to make choices that may not have the best aftermath.
3. Black Swan (2010)
Aronofsky has called Black Swan a companion piece to The Wrestler. While comparing the two films, he commented: “Wrestling some consider the lowest art – if they would even call it art – and ballet some people consider the highest art.” Thus, he takes the same theme as his previous film, ambition in a profession, and changes the setting to a ballet company. A psychological horror-thriller based on an original story by Andres Heinz, the plot revolves around Nina (Natalie Portman) who finds herself competing with Lily (Mila Kunis) for the role of a ballerina in a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake which requires the ballerina to play the antithetical White Swan as well as the Black Swan.
Nina, overwhelmed by the immense pressure, slowly starts losing her grasp on reality as she strives to achieve the role. The film is a metaphor on the ambition of artistic perfection and the extent to which it can destroy the artist in the process. With beautiful cinematography and soundtrack, it is one of Aronofsky’s most aesthetically stunning films. Portman gives one of the best performances of her career, going on to win an Oscar for the role.
2. Pi (1998)
Aronofsky’s feature directorial debut, Pi: Faith in Chaos (?), is a psychological thriller about a mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) obsessed with finding a pattern in the digit sequence of the mathematical constant ?. He believes that everything in nature can be understood through numbers and strives, almost manically, to find a system of order in our seemingly irrational human world. Max suffers from cluster headaches, paranoia and hallucinations.
Pi is filmed on high-contrast black-and-white reversal film; the black-and-white stark contrast, at times, creates a dizzying, headache-inducing effect, thus forcing the audience to experience the world through Max’s point of view. The film explores the themes of religion, mysticism, mathematics as well as their relationship to the universe. It is not an easy film to watch, and will probably give you a headache and nausea, but Aronofsky’s direction, the storyline, and the accompanying background music combine to create a masterpiece that you will not forget.
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., this psychological drama, starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans, follows four interconnected yet parallel storylines all linked by a single thing, addiction. Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn, nominated for an Academy Award for this role) starts a diet regimen to fit into her red dress which she will wear when she appears on national television. Her son Harry (Leto), his friend Tyrone (Wayans) and his girlfriend Marion (Connelly) are heroin addicts, who start trafficking heroin as a pathway to achieve their dreams.
Each character descends into their own drug hell. Filmed using several hip hop montages, extreme close-ups, and split screens, the film itself feels like being in a drug-induced state of mind. Clint Mansell’s hypnotic orchestral composition ‘Lux Aeterna’ forms the leitmotif of the film. The film explores how we avoid our realities not just through drug-addiction, but the addiction of any kind. The unflinchingly agonizing portrait of addiction, coupled with brilliant acting by each of the leading actors and Mansell’s hauntingly beautiful composition makes this, Aronofsky’s masterpiece.