Selected filmography: Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008)
Darren Aronofsky doesn't want you to feel good. For the now-44-year-old Brooklyn native, to suffer is to live. He just so happens to present his stories of longing, self-destruction, and emotional turmoil in visually compelling ways that make the misery eye-opening. He leaves you shook, but also enlightened.
Before 2000, Aronofsky—a scholarly filmmaker with degrees from Harvard University and the AFI Conservatory—made waves within the independent film community with Pi, a taut black-and-white character study replete with mental instability, conspiracy theorists, and math. The film ends with its protagonist, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), ending his brainy nightmare by drilling into his skull with a power tool. As the drill hissed, and Max's flesh spiraled open, Aronofsky's sensibilities became clear—he wanted to dig around in your brain.
Aronofsky's first film of the 2000s, Requiem for a Dream, is the ultimate in cinematic stimulation. It's also an impressive exercise in duality—just as its poignant and endlessly watchable, it's also incredibly depressing. Experiencing Requiem for a Dream turns you into It's a Wonderful Life's George Bailey, only that, instead of helplessly having to watch your family endure without you, you're helplessly watching sympathetic people slowly kill themselves. Based on Hubert Selby's 1978 novel of the same, the film looks at various forms of drug addiction, and how a person's dependency on the deadliest of narcotics can systematically destroy his or her life.
The performances—namely that of Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn, playing a lonely widow whose desire to lose weight sends her into an amphetamine tailspin—are bold and startling. The story, which continues Aronofsky's penchant for unhappy endings established with Pi, starts off sad, devolves into profound trauma, and erupts into a spellbinding, pulverizing climax in which every main character implodes simultaneously.
Once the final credits roll, and composer Clint Mansell's now-iconic score—a charged-up string symphony that sounds like angels weeping—gets firmly lodged inside your thoughts, Requiem for a Dream has established permanent residence in your mind. The image of Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) curled up in the fetal position, on a South Carolina jail's uncomfortable bed, superimposed with the shot of a preteen Tyron curled up in his now-dead mother's arms, won't stop replaying. Those kinetic, marvelously edited montages of Harry (Jared Leto), Marion (Jennifer Connelly), and Tyrone shooting themselves up with heroin have forever turned you off to drug injections, due to Aronofsky's use of repetition to convey degeneration.
You're reminded of Requiem's innovative montages whenever subsequent filmmakers use Aronofsky's techniques for their own purposes, like pre-travel packing rituals in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air or nearly every sequential transition in an Edgar Wright movie (see: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).
Aronofsky's next film, The Fountain brought the previously independent artist into the major studio system—specifically, into the Warner Bros. Pictures business. When it arrived in theaters, The Fountain mostly confused audiences and critics who weren't just displeased. it's easy to understand how that happened. Written by Aronofsky himself, the film's script is too ambitious for its own good, frankly. The layered ideas trip up the proceedings—or at least that's how it appears on the first viewing.
Naysayers will tell you that The Fountain is a muddled mishmash of science, religion, and fantasy, in which Hugh Jackman plays three similar characters in different times (the 15th century, the present, and the future) without any of his locales resonating much beyond WTF bewilderment. Those with keener eyes, however, will appreciate The Fountain for what it truly is: a heartbreaking representation of the mental lengths a person will go to make sense of losing a loved one. In the present-day storyline, Jackman's character can't handle the grief he's feeling as he watches his wife (played by Aronofsky's ex-partner Rachel Weisz) succumb to cancer. It's science fiction for the soul, a David Mitchell-esque interpretation of what comes before PTSD. Aronofsky's most polarizing film is also his most tender depiction of misery.
Having experimented vastly with visual wonderment in The Fountain, Aronofsky switched things up drastically for his follow-up, The Wrestler. Devoid of the director's usual devices (e.g., heavy montage), The Wrestler is a sparse, character-driven gut-punch—or, better yet, an emotional ram-jam. Pulling a Quentin Tarantino, Aronofsky resurrected a once-great Hollywood career by casting troubled, one-time-Brando-successor Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a "broken down piece of meat" whose bullheaded dedication to his career as a pro wrestler has left him all alone and battered. The daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) he can't help but disappoint hates him. The stripper (Marisa Tomei) with whom he so desperately wants to connect, bless her warm heart, just isn't having it. Even the little neighborhood kid with whom Randy likes hanging out doesn't seem him as anything more than the old wrestler with the 8-bit video game system. Randy is a walking, talking, pile-driving Nintendo—out-of-date and in need of some blowing into his system (read: steroids and cocaine) in order to function.
Aronofsky, cinema's greatest purveyor of broken dreams during the aughts, delivered bleakness with Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, all with the help of crafty editing, exaggerated visuals, and powerful performances from his actors. The Wrestler, though, contains a simple moment that embodies Aronofsky's modus operandi: The man formerly known as the wrestling superstar The Ram seated inside a grungy, anonymous VFW hall in suburban New Jersey, waiting for fans to show up and ask for autographs or buy cheap-o merchandise, surrounded by other lost men who refuse to accept that the good life's passed them by.
In Aronofsky's world, misery loves company. —Matt Barone