Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Darren Aronofsky
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Aronofsky probably couldn't videotape a nephew's sixth birthday party without transforming it into a visually stunning, viscerally intense exploration of obsession and madness." -Nathan Rabin, My Year of Flops

Often times here at Whose Film Is It Anyway? the goal of any given column is to point the way to a possible thematic consideration running through the work of a director that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. While this column does attempt to pick at the particulars of the auteur theory from time to time, it more often exists as a guide to a new way at viewing movies"”through the lens of the auteur theory. Some directors leave subtle traces of their own pet themes and considerations in each of their films. Others drive their themes throughout their careers like a freight train towards a populated area (apologies to Denzel). There's little argument that Darren Aronofsky is the latter type of director, one who works with a theme with so many ins and outs that he has examined it in five films over the last twelve years, and each time come up with something new to say about it. Of yet, the films of Darren Aronofsky are all, to one extent or another, about obsession and the way it drives people past the point of success and to potential ruin.

Aronofsky began his examination of obsession in his debut feature, 1998's Pi: Faith in Chaos, which follows number theorist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) on a harrowing journey into the depths of obsession and madness. Max's obsession is numbers, which he believes hold the key to every question in the universe. When the computer Max has programmed to predict the stock market crashes, spitting out a seemingly random 216 digit number and a correct prediction about a single stock. Max is quickly drawn into a world of paranoid obsession as Wall Street Executives, Hasidic Jews, and Max's own increasingly fragile mind attempt to understand the meaning of the number and its potential power to influence and alter society. As the film progresses, Max's obsession with the number, and with mathematics in general drives him ever closer to inanity until in the film's cathartic climax he makes a shocking decision to rid himself of his obsession and finally find peace.


Max's obsession with numbers is shocking in its own right, but it has nothing on Aronofsky's harrowing, heart-wrenching follow up Requiem for a Dream. The film follows four characters, each obsessed with the realization of their own dreams, and each eventually felled by a different obsession"”drug addiction. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) dreams of making enough money to treat his mother and his girlfriend properly. His girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connolly) hopes to open her own fashion store with the financial backing of Harry. Harry's best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) wants to make enough money to get out of his terrible neighborhood and make his mother proud. And Harry's mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn in an Oscar nominated performance that is guaranteed to break your heart) wants to lose enough weight to fit into the red dress she wore on her proudest day, at Harry's graduation, for her upcoming appearance on a game show. The characters each try to achieve their dreams through drug use as Harry, Tyrone and Marion, all heroin addicts plan to make a big score to finance their dreams and Sarah goes on diet pills to lose the weight, and their obsessions eventually lead to their downfall.


Throughout his work, but especially in Pi and Requiem, Aronofsky uses extremely short shots and quick cuts to depict the torturous routine that accompanies obsession. Throughout the film, Aronofsky repeatedly cuts back to the same quick montage of the routine of preparing and using heroin, showing that these characters are not just addicted to the drug itself, but obsessed with the behaviors and routines that surround drug use. Requiem for a Dream is almost doubtlessly the most harrowing, soul-crushingly depressing film ever made, but more than that, it is a tireless examination of the nightmare that results when lives are overtaken by obsession.

Never one to refuse an ambitious undertaking or to brush off a seemingly impossible challenge, Aronofsky next decided to make a movie that spanned millennia and dealt with one of the fundamental concerns of the human condition: mortality. The Fountain follows Tomas (Hugh Jackman) on a quest to conquer death in three intertwining stories: first as a conquistador attempting to save Spain and Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz) by travelling to New Spain and finding the Tree of Life; second as a modern day scientist trying to cure cancer, reverse aging and ultimately end death all as a means of saving his beloved wife Izzy; and finally as an astronaut in the future, traveling the vast reaches of space with the Tree of Life, attempting to reach a dying star to resurrect both the tree and his long-dead wife. Tomas is driven by an endless obsession with death, willing to go to any lengths to avoid it and to conquer it in order to save the woman he loves. Through the seemingly endless and arguably futile quest of his protagonist, Aronofsky argues that mortality makes life precious and that obsession threatens to keep us from appreciating the little time we have, instead squandering it in a pointless grab at more time to waste.

Likely feeling defeated by the financial failure of The Fountain (which is what allowed it to be featured in Nathan Rabin's excellent, hilarious and insightful ongoing column My Year of Flops), Aronofsky took his exploration of the dark, destructive side of obsession to a more commercial venue in 2008's The Wrestler. The film depicts Randy "The Ram" Robinson (an Oscar nominated Mickey Rourke), a former celebrity wrestler twenty years past his prime who refuses to give up chasing his glory days. Randy spends his weeks working at a grocery store, saving up enough to spend his weekends wrestling on the independent circuit. Wrestling has always been his reason for living, so much so that he abandoned his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) in her childhood. As he prepares to reenter the ring for a rematch, he attempts to reconcile with his daughter and strikes up a friendship and possible romance with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance) who also insists on staying in a career she is slowly aging out of. As the film continues, Randy suffers a heart attack and is told he can no longer wrestle without risking death, yet he allows his obsession to be his potential ruination as he reenters the ring for his final rematch and prepares to sacrifice himself to the obsession that has shaped his life.

A similar narrative forms the center of Aronofsky's newest film Black Swan (due to the fact that the film was only released two days ago, I will avoid spoilers in my discussion of it), which Aronofsky has referred to as a companion piece to The Wrestler. The film follows Nina Sayers (an Oscar worthy Natalie Portman) through her arduous training as she prepares to star in a modern retelling of Swan Lake. Sayers puts herself through physical and mental anguish in preparation for the role, forcing herself to vomit, scratching at her skin, damaging her feet and even pushing her mind into near insanity, all for the sake of her art. Though hers is the central story of the dangers of obsession in the film, she is also surrounded by others who are endangered by their obsessions"”her mother Erica (a tremendous Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina who remains consumed by her love of ballet, her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) who is passionately, sometimes creepily committed to helping Nina find her dark side to portray the titular Swan, he understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) who may or may not be trying to keep Nina from taking the stage, and her predecessor (Winona Ryder) a famed ballerina forced into retirement because of her age. Each of these characters goes to absurd lengths for the art that grips them, sacrificing their bodies, their minds, their relationships, and even their lives for their obsessions.

Each of Darren Aronofsky's films examines the nature of obsession and the myriad consequences of letting your life become consumed with something that keeps you from really enjoying it. Whether the obsession is with numbers, dreams, drugs, death, or art, Aronofsky's characters let their lives pass them by and sacrifice their relationships with others, their sanity, and in some cases even their lives in pursuit of what consumes them. Few directors manage to make a succession of films so thematically similar and yet individually satisfying. Aronofsky has worked throughout his career with the same cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, and the same composer, Clint Mansell, to create a similar feeling of claustrophobic dread whether his movies are set in the seedy side of New Jersey or the high-art society that surrounds the ballet. The nature of his character's obsession may differ each time, yet in every case, their unaltered focus seals their (usually very dark and depressing) fate. Aronofsky recently announced that his next project will be to direct The Wolverine (after the very exciting rumor that he was being tapped to direct the next Superman movie turned out to be just that), and there is little doubt in my mind that when next we see the X-Man at that movie's center, he will be driven to the brink of his exceptional abilities in a struggle to overcome, or succumb, to the obsessions that drive him.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

12/19: Frank Capra

1/2: Mike Myers

1/16: Kevin Smith

1/30: Akira Kurosawa
comments powered by Disqus