This is the third Darren Aronofsky film that I've seen. Requiem for a Dream, about the ravages of drug abuse, is one of the scariest movies I've ever witnessed, horror or otherwise. The Wrestler was a painfully realistic, unrelentingly tragic character study chock-a-block with incredible performances. Both pictures were incredibly daring and went of their way to kick expectations right in the cubes. Turns out, the blueprint for Aranofsky's rebellion was on display all along in his debut film, π.
Before we start calculating to π to five trillion digits, here's the film's grainy-looking but frenetic trailer:
π wastes no time introducing us to it's unconventional protagonist, Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), an obsessive-compulsive numbers theorist who's convinced that everything in the world has a mathematical component. This single-minded pursuit of a theory has nearly pushed poor Max to the brink of boob-hatchery. Although he's capable of performing Rain Man-like calculations in his noggin, he suffers from crippling social anxiety, chronic headaches and moments of borderline dementia.
Max is shown attempting to put his theories to the test by making predictions on the stock market. After a orgy of high-clocking numbers-crunching, his computer spits out a seemingly unrelated string of 216 digits as well as a single market call and then promptly crashes. Frustrated by what he sees as a dismal failure, Max discards the results.
The very next day, Max discovers that the computer's lone prediction was actually bang on and he feels compelled to recreate the random string of numbers that accompanied the calculation. His intrigue is further sparked when his retired mentor Sol (Mark Margolis) reveals that he had his own encounter with this mysterious 216-digit number. Naturally, when after Sol encourages Max to step away from his research, this only fuels his pupil's obsession.
The mystery further deepens when Max encounters a Hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman) who's using a numeric code to interpret large tracts of the Torah as a direct message from God. Max is particularly intrigued when some of Lenny's theories dovetail with the famed Fibonacci Sequence, a string of digits which manifests itself so frequently in nature that many people believe it to be the mathematical basis for life itself.
Employing an advanced processing chip provided by some shady Wall Street types, Max manages to recover the 216-digit sequence. While scribbling it down by hand, he experiences a mental breakthrough whereby the code suddenly makes perfect sense. After blacking out from the strain, he awakens to discover that he's developed psychic powers, allowing him to predict the stock market's wax and wane with unerring accuracy.
But then everything goes to hell. His headaches turn to crippling migraines. He begins to hallucinate. An inexplicable growth manifests itself on the side of his head. To make matters worse, both his corporate sponsors and Lenny's orthodox sect begin to play hardball after Max refuses to share his new-found discoveries with them.
Trust me, I'm not very adept at mathematics (otherwise I'd have a real job) but the mysteries, enigmas and challenges to our traditional definition of reality on display here are genuinely intriguing. In quick succession, Aronofsky effortlessly knits together Kabbalah, gematria, Archimedean spirals, messianic epiphanies, hardcore numerology and even the board game Go. All of these elements are so advanced, esoteric and barely grasped that it creates a genuine mood of unease that permeates the entire film.
The script inexorably builds on these feelings of paranoia with Max's story about going blind as a child after staring into the sun and Sol's references to Icarus. Constantly the viewer is assailed by a creeping feeling of dread. We can't help but think that that Max is just moments away from catching a glimpse of something so great and terrible that he won't be equipped to survive the experience.
This is further served by Aronofsky's stylistic choices. The film is shot in stark, grainy black and white and is brilliantly lit. Scenes inside our hero's cramped and tech-choked apartment are suitably claustrophobic. When Max is walking around in the real world, Aranofsky makes tremendous use of the actor-mounted "SnorriCam" in order to ramp up feelings of besieged disorientation. The movie is also a masterwork of tempo editing and composer Clint Mansell takes advantage of this by overlaying a memorable score that really augments the film's tonal beats.
Since Aronofsky dutifully serves up a wealth of back story, character development and authentic dialogue, lead actor Sean Gullette responds in kind with a bravura performance. Major credit has to go the Gullette for making such a socially stunted character seem likeable. Mark Margolis also provides plenty of gravitas to the role of Sol. After Max likens his impending discovery to merely walking through a door, Sol counter by insisting that it's "a door at the front of a cliff. You're driving yourself over the edge!" We silently hope that Max will come to his senses, but we also feel compelled to see what lies just beyond that forbidden door as well.
π is one part Eraserhead, one part Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and one part Twelve Monkeys. It's quite disjointed at times and doesn't completely pay off in the end, but the finale is true to the film's low-budget aesthetic and also ensures that we aren't set up for large-scale disappointment. After all, I don't think any film could posit such grand concepts without letting the audience fill in the blanks with it's own superior imagination.
If you're looking for a film that excites the mind with original concepts (as opposed to baffling it with such ludicrous sights as a fifty year old man clinging to the wing of a fighter jet), π might the sort of tasty cranial dessert you've been craving.