He Made His Debut About the Biggest Themes in the Universe
A lot of first-time directors make their debut feature a relatively small-scare venture that's heavy on emotions and human characters, but that wasn't the case for Aronofsky, who opted instead for "Pi," a surrealist narrative that attempts to theorize on everything from religion to identity, psychology, mysticism and mathematics. Not exactly the most accessible material, though Aronofsky succeeds in making it so. Understanding the complexities of number theories and how they relate to the Jewish religion isn't a problem for the viewer but for the protagonist Max, as the film follows him through an exploration of the titular number theory and its relationship to, well, just about everything in the universe.
The way Aronofsky uses numbers to make grand statements about religion and human interpretations of it is mind-bogglingly ambitious, especially for a first-time writer-director. In no other film is Aronofsky’s talent as a writer more showcased. His ability to grasp these complex concepts and boil them down to a point where the audience can feel like they are learning something, but not being pandered to, is a huge success. "Pi" is certainly not the easiest movie to fully understand, but it tows with ideas most veteran filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch.
He Was Able to Simulate the Horrors of Drug Addiction Through Editing
There aren't many films more excruciating to sit through than "Requiem For a Dream," and that's because there aren't many filmmakers like Aronofsky who would force the viewer to experience the same level of degrading torture as its drug addicted characters. There are dozens of memorable aspects of Aronofsky's masterpiece, from Clint Mansell’s transcendent score to the unsettling nature of the content, especially the climactic scenes for Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto, but what ties "Requiem" together is the way Aronofsky simulates the experience through editing, equating the viewer with the characters for 101 minutes of pain.
The quick cuts when shooting up and the way the sound is mixed and distinct for each drug scene keeps the film moving at a breakneck pace. The frame rate speeds up in certain sequences, giving a great sense of the influence above the characters and adding to the overwhelming anxiety of their habits. Aronofsky also incorporates vertical split screens in an effective and narratively cohesive way. An intimate scene between the two leads filmed this way stays focused on their faces, showing the pure physicality of their attraction. The editing leads to a masterfully depressing work that drives home its profound message and leaves the viewer feeling a whirlwind of psychological madness.
He Has Created the Ultimate Cinematic Rubik's Cube
Look at any ranking of Aronofsky's films and you're bound to see his 2006 box office bomb "The Fountain" near or at the very bottom. The drama passionately divided critics and nearly brought Aronofsky to the brink of retirement, though it's become the subject of re-interpretation over the past couple years and will most likely continue to be for decades. Simply put: "The Fountain" is the very definition of ambitious.
Starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in three separate storylines that span five centuries — he's a scientist and she's his cancer-stricken wife in 2005, he's a conquistador and she's a queen in the 16th century, and he's a space traveler grieving for his lost love in the future — the film hints that all of these characters are connected but never confirms it. Instead, Aronofsky weaves each story into one another by telling the events nonlinearly and lining them up with match cuts and repeating visual and aural motifs. The result is more of a Rubik's Cube that needs to be solved (something the director himself called the movie) than any kind of traditional cinematic experience the viewer has seen prior. Not since Kubrick has unlocking the mysteries of a film proved so intoxicatingly head-scratching. "The Fountain" is Aronofsky at the very height of his ambitions.
He Cast Mickey Rourke in the Role of a Lifetime
Around the time Aronofsky was heading into casting on "The Wrestler" in late 2007, Mickey Rourke wasn't exactly the name most people would want attached to their movie. With a burnt-out career, several arrests under his belt and a pretty abysmal reputation for being a hot-headed rebel who is impossible to work it, no one in the business was lining up at Rourke's door to ask him to be front and center in their motion picture, except for Aronofsky that is.
While Nicolas Cage was originally set to star, Aronofsky let him go so that Rourke could step into the weary shoes of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a broken wrestler with one shot to win back his daughter and make good on his sorry life. It may have sounded like a risk on paper, but under the director's eye Rourke turned in his best performance of all time, a rare fusion of character and actor that liberated them both from the history that was weighing them down. Rourke earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and while his career wasn't entirely resurrected afterwards, his time with Aronofsky proved you can never count out a down-on-his-luck star. This was one ambitious casting choice that paid of for everyone.
He Hid a Terrifying Monster Movie in a Drama About Ballet
It’s kind of insane how "Black Swan" is essentially a more psychedelic and psychotic version of David Cronenberg's "The Fly." While the film presents itself as a ballet drama and slowly reveals itself into a very harrowing, Aronofsky-esque depiction of psychological addiction, it totally dives off into the dark deep in during its final 20 minutes. It's here where Aronofsky lets his ambitions fly to horrifying new heights, as he maximizes on the potential of his psychological leanings to craft real operatic horror.
Natalie Portman’s performance is stellar throughout it all. She's both highly physical and intensely emotive, and she earned her well-deserved best actress Oscar for a role that looked like hell. As both a deeply literally and existential interpretation of Black Swan theory, the themes of regret and hindsight rationalization are as present here as in any transformation genre piece. Aronofsky’s ability to tell a more nuanced version and expand upon what horror movies have been doing for years in an intelligent way is just one aspect of what makes the film the peek of his auteur powers. "Black Swan" falls down the rabbit hole into a lunacy-laden monster movie (where the monster is the character herself), and for that we'll always fall under its spell.
He Remained an Auteur Even When Taking on the Bible
Does it get more ambitious than the Bible? Probably not, especially when you're tackling one of the most beloved biblical stories of all time: Noah's ark. While taking on the Bible and working with a major studio (Paramount Pictures) and a $125 million budget may have led some to believe that Aronofsky's auteur trademarks would be restricted, this was hardly the case.
In fact, quite the opposite was true, as Aronofsky filled the traditional story with his own musings on the ideas of creativity (one scene that combines the creativity story with evolution is a stunning personal reckoning of two juxtaposing themes) and the specifics of his story. His addition of giant rock angels called "Watchers" certainly riled up biblical purists and left others scratching their heads, but they showed a director not compromising his vision and forcing himself to evaluate his own connection to his Jewish history. "Noah" isn't just one of Aronofsky's most ambitious movies from a storytelling perspective, it's one of his riskiest moves ever. It's a Bible story that is as personal as ones own relationship with religion, and for that reason its ambition can't be denied.