Obsessive, expressionistic, and agonising are a few things that characterise the work of Darren Aronofsky. From his first feature film Pi to his latest mother! the director has made a name for himself for his brand of psychologically horrifying cinema. Crafting films that dive headfirst into the painfully traumatised minds of his isolated, troubled characters, Aronofsky forces audiences to look into the spotted mirrors of their own subconsciousness, to grapple with their beliefs surrounding existence, reality, and the darkness that quietly consumes us all.
Though Aronofsky’s career has spanned nearly two decades, he has only directed seven feature films. However, each of those films is packed to the brim with visual sensation and cinematic poetry that one could watch each repeatedly and find something new every time.
This is because Aronofsky’s approach to filmmaking puts so much responsibility on the audience to dig through the narrative and uncover the deeper meanings of his work. You won’t find much closure, long expositional scenes, or neat and tidy narrative unity in any of his films. Instead, they exist as ponderings of the world we live in, our various experiences of reality, and the agony that befalls us when we acknowledge and entertain the darkness in the deepest reaches of both.
To explore these themes, Aronofsky commonly uses particular methods and stylistic choices in his work, which I will explore here.
An ambitious, obsessive protagonist
At first glance, Aronofsky’s protagonists seem disparate in nature. A mathematician in Pi, drug addicts in Requiem for a Dream, a surgeon in The Fountain, a wrestler in…you guessed it The Wrestler, a ballet dancer in Black Swan, a biblical figure in Noah and a wife and mother!. However, each of them strives for greatness but flies too close to the sun. The thing they yearn to be the most leads to their breakdown. Each of the seven films is a character study taking a deep dive into a creative but disturbed individual. The inspired versus the insane—each searching for meaning in their lives.
Aronofsky’s first film, Pi, focused on incredible mathematician Max Cohen, whose quest is to find a single number that will give order to the universe. During his quest, he ends up doing precisely the opposite, becoming more and more chaotic the harder he strives.
The Wrestler and Black Swan are a pair of films about creativity. While the two lead characters are at the opposite sides of the spectrum in their careers, Randy The Ram and Nina The Swan are both athletic entertainers, who have to learn brutal choreographed routines 365 days a year. They both pursue a dream that they know will crush them eventually.
After a brief attempt at living a normal life, Randy returns to wrestling, knowing that he can’t make it out. In the end, he’d rather die doing what he loved than live doing what he hated. Likewise, Nina foresees the psychological breakdown that will occur if she pursues the role of the Black Swan, both in the opening dream and in watching her Companies former Prima Ballerinas’ meltdown. But it doesn’t matter to Nina. She’s willing to give up her sanity to get what she wants—to reach that kind of potential we sometimes have to destroy ourselves in the process.
Living in a Fantasy World
Aronofsky’s characters often live in an elaborate fantasy world to shield themselves from the horror and uncertainty of the real world.
In Requiem for a Dream, the characters suffering from drug addiction escape into dreams to distract from their painful reality. Harry fantasises about growing old with Marion. Marion dreams of a career in fashion design, and Sara believes she will be on television. The red dresses worn by both Marion and Sara projects the image of themselves they think they want to be. But in reality, they’re addicted to the fantasy more than they want the actual life depicted in their dreams. Over the course of the film, the red dress transforms from a picture of hope to an image of darkness, as the characters collapse under the weight of their drug dependencies. Without their dreams though, life would be unbearable. In the end, they are still telling themselves everything will be ok, though the future is looking considerably bleak. Is this tragic or honourable? Probably both.
In The Fountain Aronofsky shows characters using fantasy for a different purpose—to deal with the unknown and achieve peace. Izzi writes a book about a Spanish Conquistador searching for the mythical fountain of youth. This helps her and her husband Tommy deal with her eventual death from brain cancer. Instead of facing this tragedy in terror, she is able to come to terms with what is happening to her by living through her fantasy. This shows that make-believe worlds aren’t always a dangerous place to live; in fact, they might be very good for the soul.
Like all of us, Aronofsky does not know what comes after death but believing and valuing the fantasies and stories we tell ourselves helps us cope with that uncertainty.
These stories we create are similar to religion, and those stories aren’t always comforting or happy. Take Aronofsky’s re-telling of the biblical Great Flood.
Noah is brutal and dark. It questions the nature of humanity and captures the way the Old Testament contained violent and disturbing material, that denies comfort and easy answers. Yet, even if the fantasy is dark, our need for stories and dreams are buried deep in our need for meaning itself.
The melodrama and psychological horror in Aronofksy’s films, tend to stem from a core story that is based on family conflict. Good parenting is a balance of justice and mercy, and the director often uses themes where these weigh heavily on one side.
mother! has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby, and this theme ties into Aronofsky’s other works. As throughout his films, we see parental figures who are separated from their children by delusions—they see a grandiose or distorted view of their child instead of who that person really is.
Noah portrays a father whose cruel actions in the name of God result in a falling out between him and his son. The story seems to draw from the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, but again it’s the idea that parent’s who see their children as a filter for their desires and beliefs, and they have no concern for their child as an individual with their own needs.
In Requiem for a Dream, Harry’s mother Sara is seemingly driven to insanity by her aspirations to be on TV, but these delusions grow because of her son’s neglect. He rarely visits her, and when he does, she is unable to face the fact that drug dependency has taken over his life. She retreats into her fantasy to avoid acknowledging his absence and addiction, and to ignore her own addiction to amphetamines the fantasy of being on television.
All of the outward conflicts in Black Swan can be interpreted as expressions of a parent/child conflict. Nina’s overbearing and oppressive mother gave up ballet to raise her daughter and is now obsessed with Nina’s ballet career as she tries to live vicariously through her daughters’ experiences. Nina is basically trafficked by her mother, but as she grows into an adult, she rebels against her mother’s wishes—despite her desire to succeed being as strong as her mothers, and their goals the same.
Aronofsky’s films can be seen as a cinematic parallel to the expressionist art movement at the turn of the century. Expressionist painters fought to illustrate the conflict between surface-level beauty and deeply felt internal turmoil and insecurity. Of course, there’s no paint and canvas here; he uses the camera to allow us to visualise what cannot be seen.
He shoots his worlds from the subjective eyes of his protagonists. Choosing first-person techniques such as tracking shots, POV shots, and immersive sound to give the impression that we’re experiencing the events of the film first-hand. But then he pushes us further by showing hallucinations and imaginations created by the minds of the characters, leading us to questions their sanity and pulling us into their fantasy world.
In Requiem for a Dream, we see Aronofsky’s deliberate use of expressive camera when he uses a split-screen to show Harry and Marion talking to each other in bed. The characters are physically close, lying right next to each other, so the totally unnecessary use of the split-screen is to make the viewer aware of the invisible divide between these two characters. Even at this early stage of their drug habits, they do not really see each other, just their own dreams and illusions brought about by their high. As their addictions worsen, it becomes even more clear that they both need drugs to be with each other.
Split-screens are used earlier in the film too, this time to demonstrate the distance between Harry and his mother, Sarah. She is unable to see past her long-standing ideas of who her son is or to face his addiction for what it is.
Early on in the film, a scene plays out before revealing to us that it was all imaginary. Harry dreams of stealing a gun from a police officer, Marion fantasises about stabbing her psychiatrist in the hand with a fork. These scenes set up a false sense of security for viewers as later on when horrendous moments occur—Harry has his arm amputated, Marion is forced to prostitute herself, Sara is given electroshock therapy—we expect and want the camera to cut away. It doesn’t, and we are denied the addicts’ escape, and we must remain in the devastating and depressing reality of what is happening to them.
In Black Swan, Nina’s warped perception of reality forces the viewer to decide what is and isn’t objectively happening. By the end, the fantasy of her dark persona has become the entire world that we see.
Similarly, in Pi, the viewer is placed directly in the eye of Max Cohen, using surrealist imagery to show us what it is like in his headspace. Max imagines a rotting brain while he’s waiting at a subway station. This is the literal manifestation of his fear that he is going insane, and that his brain will rot. Nina’s hallucinations of another version of herself frighten her. She feels that the alternate self will take over. In both of these cases, the characters were right to be fearful, as these things do come to pass.
Aronofsky often shoots his characters looking into mirrors—again to demonstrate the conflict between external beauty and internal commotion. In Black Swan, this is on full display as mirrors are constantly present. A ballerina’s creative career hinges on their external appearance; as the film progresses, Nina keeps looking into mirrors to make sure that her internal unravelling does not leak into her outward appearance. The mirror also reminds us of her duality, both between her inner and outer self, and the black and white swan.
The conflict between internal and external selves also shows up in Requiem for a Dream. In one scene, Tyrone stands in front of a mirror admiring himself, before being swept away into a daydream, melancholically remembering a childhood moment with his mother. The memory is triggered in part because his external appearance is at odds with his internal distress. On the outside, he looks in good physical shape; on the inside, he knows that the drugs have taken hold of his body and his life and that he has disappointed his mother. Allowing our inner and outer selves to disconnect leads to misery and madness.
Strobe Lighting at Key Moments
Strobe lighting often signifies the moment a characters inner strife finally manifests itself externally or physically.
In Pi, the lights begin flickering in Max’s apartment before he decides to drill into his skull. It’s his moment where the internal and external merge. His psychological distress can be seen and leads him to damage his body. Likewise in The Wrestler, lights flash as Randy exits the ring after a particularly brutal match and soon his repressed knowledge that he is too old to keep fighting translates physically into a heart attack. In Black Swan, the club scene is where Nina first acknowledges and expresses her sexual desires.
In all of these scenes, strobe lighting represents the characters’ world-shattering realisation, and it signals that their inner distress has now entered the outer world.
Expressionist Sound Design
Like his subjective camera techniques, the sound design in Aronofsky’s films is especially prominent. It tells us what the characters hear or feel. Whether they are taking drugs, using a typewriter, making money, waking up, or eating breakfast, these sounds bring us into the characters head. They also give his films a noticeable rhythm which keeps the viewer on edge.
In addition, Aronofsky has worked with composer Clint Mansell on all of his films, with the exception of mother! It’s Mansell who’s responsible for the deathless strings of Requiem for a Dream’s “Lux Aeterna,” the subtle revisions of Tchaikovsky in Black Swan and The Wrestler’s haunting guitar motif, each providing key insight into the character’s personalities and eventual unravellings.
The further Aronofsky progresses through his career; it appears the further he pushes the envelope of what is traditional and even socially acceptable in cinema. Though his latest film mother! was one of the most highly-anticipated films of 2017, it has become one of the most polarising, receiving incredible resistance from critics and moviegoers alike as well as praise.
Whether or not you liked mother! or any of Aronofsky’s films for that matter, no one could deny that the director is one of the biggest risk-takers in cinema today. Art is a form of self-expression, and it is clear from his work that Aronofsky is both ambitious and obsessive himself. He, like his characters, lose themselves in their fantasy worlds when striving for greatness. I think it’s fair to say he has accomplished what he set out to do, but like all the characters mentioned above, he likely suffered in the process, both mentally and physically.