Darren Aronofsky is back! Having built off a successful career out of spiking the viewer’s heart rate manyfold with shocking movies that chill to the bone, Hollywood’s marquee provocateur is once again on everyone’s lips with the Brendan Frasier-starring “The Whale”, a theater play adaptation that tells the story of a 600-lb man trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
Confusing to many, but fiercely beloved by anyone brave enough to stick with them, Darren Aronofsky’s films never fail to stir up debate and make headlines with their dark explorations of human nature. From “Pi” all the way to “mother!”, the American filmmaker has forged a lasting reputation as a gifted craftsman with a keen eye for striking visuals and a bold storyteller whose byline alone puts asses in seats. With all the controversy brewing on the heels of his latest offering, what better time to revisit every entry in his bone-chilling catalog and see how it all stacks up.
8. Noah (2014)
Following the rousing success of “Black Swan” in 2010, Aronofsky leveraged his new-found critical acclaim into shooting a $125 million studio epic full of sword-and-sandals showdowns starring Russell Crowe and stalwart collaborator Jennifer Connelly—a major heel turn from a guy who up to that point had earned his stripes in low-budget productions. Rather unsurprisingly, the resulting film is perplexing and fascinating in almost equal measure; a bizarre crossbreed between operatic Biblical saga à la Cecil B. DeMille and intimate character study that doubles down as a heavy-handed environmentalist fable.
As overwrought and uneven though it may be, however, it’s a testament to Aronofsky’s lofty artistic ambitions that a film that’s widely regarded as his weakest outing to date still remains such a fascinating oddity—the kind of swing-for-the-fences spectacle we rarely get to see at the multiplex in this day and age. For all of Noah’s Biblical heroics and mythical floods, though, the real miracle here is the fact that Aronofsky convinced a major studio to bankroll this film in the first place.
A sensorial experience deliberately constructed to be as grueling and migraine-inducing as humanly possible, Aronofsky’s domestic psycho-thriller continues to spark rarefied passions and heated debates among moviegoers over half a decade upon its initial release.
Widely touted as the director’s most inscrutable and polarizing movie to date, “mother!” juggles many themes at its fold; zeroing in on a downtrodden poet writer (Javier Bardem) and his pregnant wife (Jennifer Lawrence), whose relationship and sanity are brutally tested through a carousel of unexpected guests that suddenly come knocking down at their door. What at first unfolds as an intriguing, slow-burn nail-bitter soon curdles into a nightmarish psychodrama steep in metaphors and cluttered biblical motifs that toes the line of miserabilism to a nauseating degree. On many fronts, this is the most Aronofsky film ever committed to celluloid; a rite of passage that will either turn you into one of his staunch devotees for years to come or make you regret ever pressing that play button. For better or worse, “mother!” must be seen to be believed.
6. The Fountain (2006)
If nothing else, you can count on Aronofsky to pull out all the stops in each and every one of his movies. “The Fountain”, a Hugh Jackman-led sci-fi epic featuring 16th century Spanish conquistadores, present-day surgeons, and cosmic space travelers alike, is something on the lines of “The Tree of Life” on acid. Spanning over thousand years across three parallel narrative threads, this 2006 mind-bender is overflowing with ideas about religion, love, and death that are all worth confronting—even if, for the most part, Aronofsky struggles to find a refined expression to his philosophical musings within 96 minutes.
To be fair, if “The Fountain” does not quite stick the landing, it is not entirely through Aronofsky’s fault, who was definitely out of his depth this time around but also saw his vision heavily damped after clashing with the studio during production. Though the film was not met kindly upon its release, your mileage may (and will) vary, in fact, many diehard fans would rank it among the director’s finest.
5. The Whale (2022)
To no one’s surprise, the latest theatrical feature by Aronofsky was equally mired in controversy, causing a frenzy at Venice where it instantly polarized pundits and audiences with its uncompromising treatment of obesity. Adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “The Whale” concerns a 600-lb man (Brendan Fraser) who develops a dangerous eating disorder following the death of his partner and makes one last attempt at reconnecting with her estranged teenage daughter (“Stranger Things” breakout Sadie Sink).
Much of the fanfare surrounding the film is owed to Fraser’s vulnerable performance in the titular role, which heaped near-universal praise last fall and resulted in a much-deserved Oscar nod among other accolades. But as exciting as it’s been to follow the Brendanaissance up close in the past few months, Aronofsky’s misbegotten effort never quite manages to earn its emotional punches. As a whole, “The Whale” barely scratches the surface of its subject matter and instead relies on surface level commentary in order to force a strong reaction out of viewers. The latter is something Aronofsky has aspired to do ever since he first picked up a camera, so overall, this movie will not convert any new fans.