Darren Aronofsky: A Retrospective

Darren Aronofsky

Orla Smith.

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! hits UK cinemas this week, and no other film this year has provoked such a volatile reaction.

Glance briefly at the review headlines, and you’ll find proclamations that it’s the best movie of the year… and by far the worst. You could argue that Aronofsky’s movies only serve the purpose of shocking us ― whether he realises it or not. mother! in particular ran a self-satisfied marketing campaign that was determined to convince us it would be the craziest movie of the year: posters that wore their influences on their sleeves, scavenger hunts around various American cities, and bleeding hearts made of cake sent to unsuspecting film critics in the mail.

You can feel Aronofsky’s presence in every frame of his films, which is often not a good thing.

I can admire his verve, and I even like a select few of his films, but the sound of him patting himself on the back loudly echoes throughout everything he does. There are many egotistical directors who put their characters, actors and audiences through hell in the name of their ‘art’, but it’s (worryingly) easy to forgive their behaviour when that art is good. Unfortunately, in the case of Aronofsky, it usually isn’t. Most of his film’s thesis’ can be reduced to a simple sentence. He forgets to deepen his metaphors, distracted by the flash of high contrast lighting and thudding musical scores. As a result, most of his films are excruciatingly boring.

But not all of them. It’s impossible to dismiss him entirely, no matter how much I might like to, as among his seven features there’s a demonstration of strong craft that, every now and again, connects with his intentions. I’ve ranked all of his films, with the top two spots reserved for the only two films that begrudgingly force me to say: ‘Aronofsky, you can stay. For now’.

7. Pi (1998)


Aronofsky’s black and white, micro-budget debut Pi begins with its protagonist Max spouting vaguely metaphorical and #deep ramblings over voiceover. It gets worse and worse from there.

Pi is a film that asks us to be compelled by the plight of a special, genius guy who’s really obsessed with the number three-and-a-bit. It’s an excruciating watch; I felt as though Aronofsky was sitting beside me, incessantly asking if I was impressed yet. No, Darren. No, I’m not.

6. The Fountain (2006)


The Fountain has been reclaimed by many as a masterpiece since it’s lukewarm-to-poor reception upon release. I’m here to present a counterpoint: maybe it was bad to start with, and it’s still bad. Very bad.

Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz lead this expansive story that stretches across three different timelines. It’s admirable that Aronofsky tries to capture so much of the universe in one sweepingly emotional package, but he falls flat on his face at every turn. He fails to do what a recent film like A Ghost Story does in spectacular fashion: tell a love story that traverses decades and all logical perceptions of time. Instead, The Fountain  is one of the only Aronofsky films that fails at both concept and craft.

5. Noah (2014)


Given how crazy Noah sounds ― the story of Noah’s ark, but with added rock monsters, re-inserted incestual implications, Noah as the stealth villain and Ray Winstone doing… something ― it’s amazing how bland and generic it manages to feel. The first two thirds are indistinguishable from any Hollywood blockbuster, in no small part because of one of Clint Mansell’s worst scores.

What almost saves the film is its third act, in which it becomes a chamber piece and Noah (Russell Crowe) turns into his family’s antagonist. His adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) is pregnant, and Noah decrees that he will kill the child if it is a girl ― in order to ensure that the human race will end with their family. That familial tension is compelling enough, although ruined by Winstone’s insistence at re-appearing to add ‘conflict’. It’s yet another example of Aronofsky not being able to tell his good ideas from his bad ones.

4. The Wrestler (2008)


I’ll give Aronofsky this: he’s good at endings. The final five minutes of The Wrestler are also the only compelling five minutes of The Wrestler. It’s a bafflingly simple character study that explores the life of a former champ (Mickey Rourke) who’s now older, forgotten and has been forced to quit the sport due to health reasons.

Rourke is solid, but his character is written with zero complexity. Everything we know about him is told to us in the opening scenes, and never deepened from there. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is strong, and she used her acclaim here to get a job on Creed, a far more compassionate film about men in the ring. The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s most low-key character study, and it pretends to understand how humans work ― yet the conclusion it comes to is that the only noble choice is self-destruction.

3. Black Swan (2010)


Black Swan thinks it’s so smart. It would be unfair to say that the film isn’t about anything. The problem is, it’s about so little. The themes of Black Swan can be reduced to three words: ‘it’s about obsession’. There’s no nuance beyond that. The style is often ravishing, but the only instance when it is truly visceral ― connecting to the character’s experiences in a rousing way ― is the final dance transformation.

Aronofsky’s view of women in his films is often patronisingly sexist. That has never been more evident than in Black Swan. Natalie Portman’s Nina is essentially a child in a woman’s body: she speaks with a high voice, blushes at the thought of sex, and lives with a mother who coddles her and decorates her room in all pink. Portman does what is asked of her with grace and skill, but ‘what is asked of her’ is hardly anything at all. Aronofsky writes Nina as a caricature. The way she acts is completely divorced from reality, even before she goes insane.

2. Requiem for a Dream (2000)


Requiem for a Dream is probably Aronofsky’s least subtle movie, but while in other cases that is a problem, in Requiem the lack of subtlety is not at odds with what he is trying to accomplish. It’s a writhing cesspool of sweat, dirt, grime, saliva and spit, and it’s absolutely repulsive. If repulsion is all that Aronofsky was going for (and I think it was), he’s succeeded tenfold.

Essentially ‘don’t do drugs, kids’, the movie, Requiem for a Dream follows the stories of four people (Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans) as their lives gradually (and then not so gradually) descend into the gutter. The film doesn’t let up, and threads all its plotlines together seamlessly. A regular use of split-screen ― and scenes in which it feels as though he’s attached a camera rig to his actors’ chins ― means the film is visually abrasive and almost an abusive viewing experience. It’s intensely ugly to look at and to listen to, but all these things are unabashedly intentional. Aronofsky’s desire to shock can be powerful when it works. Many will sneer at the value of movies that exist to shock ― but it’s better than feeling nothing at all.

1. mother! (2017)


mother! is the only Darren Aronofsky movie that I would call fascinating. Most of his films have too few ideas, but this one has too many. It’s just as exciting to pick apart the bits of it that don’t work as it is to revel in the bits that do. I still don’t know how I feel about the film ― whether I love it, or whether it disgusts me ― but it does what an Aronofsky movie should do: it takes you down the rabbit hole.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a career best performance as an unnamed character credited only as ‘mother’. We remain attached to her face throughout the film, and without Lawrence’s ability to carry an audience with her the film wouldn’t work at all.

mother! is a film in which everything that could possibly happen happens. Some are claiming that it has nothing to say, and while I’m tempted to dismiss Aronofsky, I find that claim unfair. mother! is saying a lot (arguably too much), and some of it rings painfully true. Some of it is harmful, misogynistic and disgusting. Some of that rings true. It’s immensely pleased with itself and not as clever as it thinks it is… but it’s not stupid either. Above all, it’s gleefully entertaining and wickedly funny. I liked it, and I felt very bad for liking it ― and that’s what an Aronofsky film should do.

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