Filmmaker Retrospective: The Cinema of Darren Aronofsky

Committing oneself to an ideal is a respectable goal. However, the protagonists of Darren Aronofsky’s films would benefit from keeping everything in moderation. As an emerging auteur, Aronofsky is still fairly young, but over the past two decades, he has proven himself as a director with consistent vision and mettle.

His stories are warning tales of obsession, of how becoming addicted to a goal can enslave a person just as easily as it can help them attain what they want. This makes Aronofsky’s films very American in their criticism of our capitalist dreams.

Although the films themselves are not political, Aronofsky takes direct influence from Hubert Selby, Jr., the author who wrote Requiem for a Dream, who describes the “American Dream,” as amorphous and unattainable. In empathizing with characters whose goals consume them, Aronofsky’s tales become relatable to the American working class.

With a degree in social anthropology, Aronofsky’s films delve directly into the mental world of the protagonist, exploring the war within us and around us. Although his characters face external blockades to their goal, it’s never about how or if they reach their goal as much as what those obstacles do to the characters’ mind and soul.

Aronofsky desires to produce epics, but he and the studio systems have not always seen eye to eye. He has been attached to several large blockbusters that he ended up leaving over creative differences. He was originally set to direct Batman: Year One, which would have replaced Batman Begins as the Batman reboot. He had also been attached to direct The Wolverine and the RoboCop remake, both of which he left due to scheduling issues. Although his films have varied in scale and production, Aronofsky’s voice remains clear throughout.


1. Pi (1998)


It’s no coincidence that madmen like Charles Manson and the Unabomber were able to cultivate followers and write intellectual manifestos. Madness is the brother of genius, and Aronofsky explores the depths of both in his debut feature film, Pi.

The story tells the tale of Maximillian Cohen, a calculated loner who has buried himself in a room, left alone with nothing but his thoughts. He suffers from debilitating headaches, brought on by his self-induced mania. He believes that math holds the key to everything – the stock market, the weather, the future, and even God. He will do anything to discover this universal equation.


As the story continues, Max faces outside forces that seek to obtain the magical mathematical number he has found. In tone, the film takes on a thriller vibe, but it’s not the outside forces that seem nearly as threatening as Max’s deteriorating mental state.

As his debut feature, Pi does an excellent job of exploring the themes of madness that run throughout Aronofsky’s work. Max’s religious pursuit of the number and its connections to science and the Torah consume him completely, until his brain physically cannot deal anymore. Unlike scientific facts, Max’s numbers rest in his mind, and he makes conclusions about them based on what he’d like to believe instead of reality.


2. Requiem for a Dream (2000)


Based on the Hubert Selby, Jr. novel of the same name, Requiem for a Dream is just as the name suggests, a tale of different forms of addiction that delude the characters until reality shows it’s ugly face. Written by Aronofsky and Selby, the film is a haunting portrayal of how any one of us could be an addict. It does not need to involve hard drugs, just desire.

Although it has been grouped in with other drug movies, Requiem for a Dream manages to attain a depth that others do not. By contrasting Harry, Marion, and Tyrone’s addictions to heroin with Sara’s addiction to prescription drugs, television, and weight loss, it becomes so much more than just an anti-drug PSA. An addictive personality can make anything a vice. Although the film doesn’t cover all these topics, any one of these protagonists could just as easily be obsessed with video games, pornography, or their smart phone. Everything in moderation.


This is Aronofsky at his bleakest, superimposing the images of each characters dream over their dark ending, each character contorting their body into a fetal position. The film features similar cinematic techniques as Pi, utilizing the same hip hop montage style during the drug sequences. Whereas with a traditional film, the average amount of film cuts is 600-700, Requiem has more than 2,000.

Commendable aspects of the film include Ellyn Burstyn’s performance, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and the score done by Clint Mansell. The leitmotif, entitled “Lux Aeterna,” became popular upon the film’s release and led to its use in several film trailers, including Sunshine and the Lord of the Rings.


3. The Fountain (2006)

The Fountain

The Fountain tells three separate stories, all connected thematically. In each one, Hugh Jackman plays Tom, a character attempting to solve or cure mortality. In one, he is a Spanish conquistador, searching desperately for the tree of life in an attempt to save his queen. In another, he is a modern scientist, struggling to find a cure for his wife’s brain tumor. The final story involves him as a space traveler aboard a biosphere carrying the tree of life. The tree is slowly dying, but his character believes that if he takes the tree to a nebula, it will be reborn.

In summation, the film is about one man’s quest to defeat death. Although in each story, he makes the journey to help a loved one, he is really on the journey for himself, to stave off death due to his insurmountable fear of it. The film features a variety of circle imagery, appropriately representing the cycle of life. While the film deals with death, it also deals just as much with rebirth.

The Fountain

Although the film was a box office flop, it stands as an incredibly unique musing on death. The film’s content and execution were perhaps better suited for the art house crowd, despite its nationwide release. It features Hugh Jackman’s most emotive performance yet, and it’s a wonder why he didn’t receive any Oscar nods. Even though the film only had a $35 million dollar budget, it features better special effects than most blockbusters today.