I. π (1998) II. Requiem For a Dream (2000) III. Below* (2002) IV. The Fountain (2006) V. The Wrestler (2008) VI. Black Swan (2010) VII. Noah (2014) VIII. mother! (2017)
For a brief little while, Darren Aronofsky was something close to the predominant force in the indie scene. Exploding out of nowhere in 1998—"nowhere" being only imperfectly synonymous, I suppose, with "Harvard University" and "the American Film Institute"—the 28 year old came to Sundance with Pi and got himself a shiny Best Director award. Two years later, Requiem For a Dream made an even more enormous impression (almost two decades on, I can't remember which I saw first, though I would bet it was Requiem), and, with those two films under his belt, Aronofsky had found the theme that would power the larger part of his career. Amongst his fellows, he was one of the few true-born artists, in the deep sense of the term; and, as an artist, he had an obsession. That obsession, of course, was obsession.
In turn, he would look at different kinds of obsession and always—every time—find the same thing: the mathematician, searching for the master equation of the universe, and finding destruction; the addict, searching for happiness, and finding misery; the scientist, searching for immortality, and finding death; the wrestler, searching for a family, and finding strangers. Aronofsky reckoned with the hunger and beauty of obsession, but only on his fifth try, did he permit his obsessive the mercy of a happy end to her struggles, with the ballerina, searching for perfection, and finding perfection—though, once again, solely in annihilation. (I guess it's true what they say about happy endings: Black Swan remains Aronofsky's most profitable effort by an egregious margin.)
Those five films, implicitly or (more often) explicitly, were about humans striving for knowledge and grace, and, therefore, to either join God in His Heaven, or to have a taste of His power and glory. It's possible that the only filmmaker in the English language who might be more in awe of creation's mystery, and (unless I'm mistaken) the only other English-language filmmaker able to communicate that awe with anything like the same level of artistry, is that pantheist pseudo-Christian, Terrence Malick.
The difference is that Aronofsky—raised Jewish, and now an atheist, whom I suspect wishes he were still religious—strives toward the divine with the promethean arrogance of a desperate adept (or angry apostate) rather than with Malick's own humble, sincere yearning; this is the biggest contrast between their films. (Well, that, and the fact that Aronofsky movies do always have characters, and usually have plots.) In a sense, Aronofsky's first five films are about the human need to pretend there's a meaning to any of this nonsense. It's not always God-qua-God in Pi or Requiem or The Fountain or The Wrestler or Black Swan; but, you know, it might as well be.
So, obviously, it was only ever a matter of time before Aronofsky started making movies that were literally about God. The results of his full-force dive into atheist mysticism have been mixed. Noah, Aronofsky's biggest-budget endeavor (and somehow weird in its gestures toward making the Bible "normal," in the context of a blockbuster actioner), backs off on all the hard, impossible questions it raises, satisfying itself instead with one hell of a too-pat answer. Those results are less-mixed, at least, in mother!, Aronofsky's most anti-populist endeavor, and which is just stuffed to bursting with big ideas that still don't entirely go together well. Mother!, you understand, co-stars God—though primarily as a stand-in, once again, for human obsession. But I guess that's almost always been the case whenever "God" has been involved; and Aronofsky's seven directorial efforts are, taken as a whole, one man's attempt to reconcile humanity to the fire that drives us and, if we are not careful, will burn us alive. Maybe there isn't a God, but Aronofsky's pretty sure there's nonetheless Judgment.
But as his themes stayed at least equally grandiose, Aronofsky's own fire as an artist has perhaps dimmed somewhat. The roaring aesthetic of his early days was driven by the best collaborators any director could ask for: by thunderously-meaningful editing, particularly when Jay Rabinowitz was doing the cutting; by musical accompaniment that could rival an opera's, courtesy Aronofsky's favorite composer, Clint Mansell; and by the experimentalist, intense, and often-drop-dead-gorgeous cinematography of Aronofsky's usual DP, Matthew Libatique.
It all came to a head with The Fountain, his third film and, by my lights, his unrivaled peak as a director. Aronofsky's greatest work combined the multi-layered elegance of an accomplished master with the sheer urgency of the neophyte who'd thrown Pi together just eight years before. But The Fountain, as you know, failed with both critics and audiences—the two most detestable factions in all of cinema, if you asked me.
And so the masterpiece was to be succeeded by The Wrestler (shot by Maryse Alberti), a very good film that also has the distinction of being its director's worst; and, with it, Aronofsky settled into a far more comfortable (and far less exciting) rut. His films had always been deeply caged within the subjectivity of their heroes, but from The Wrestler onward this was accomplished much more quietly. (Incidentally, it's really strange that those rad Snorricam moving close-ups ever became synonymous with the filmmaker, isn't it? After all, he only used 'em in his first two flicks, and that was so long ago.)
Aronofsky tends to conserve his energy for the key sequences now—the sublime retelling of Creation and the Fall in Noah; the apotheosis of Nina Sayers in Black Swan; the stroke-inducing cinematic assault of mother!'s final twenty minutes—and it makes for movies that are simply less interesting just to look at than they used to be, even though they may be, in a technical sense, more rigorous. Nevertheless, don't let me fool you! Aronofsky's films still have more imagination and verve within them than most directors ever demonstrate. And if Aronofsky never makes another Fountain, that's not exactly a tragedy; there are maybe a dozen movies in the whole world better than The Fountain anyway. On the other hand, if twenty years from now, we're still watching Libatique follow the back of an actor's head around... well, I'm sure it'll still be worth watching, even if I am equally sure I'll be bitching about it, too.
Oh, let's not end it on a sour note. Aronofsky is one of the youngest filmmakers we've taken a look at; only 48, surely he'll be following his own path and making weird shit for many years to come. Needless to say, we'll be looking forward to seeing whatever it is he comes up with next. But, for now, let's look back one more time at what he's done so far—and rank those fuckers, because nothing says "art" like "cold, merciless hierarchy."
7a. BELOW* (5/10)
7. THE WRESTLER (7/10)
6. NOAH (7/10)
5. MOTHER! (8/10)
4. π (10/10)
3. BLACK SWAN (10/10)
2. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (10/10)
1. THE FOUNTAIN (10/10)
Entries marked with one asterisk (*) indicate films Aronofsky helped write, but did not direct