“Torah’s just a long string of numbers. Some say it’s a code, sent to us from God.”
This was Darren Aronofsky’s debut, and right away he established that he had no interest in realism–all his most characteristic films are about a level of reality more real than the one we live in. His clearest forerunner is David Lynch, but Aronofsky is a much more rigorous director. π is work of what could be called philosophical horror, a kind of fusion of Lovecraft and Kabbalah. Max (Sean Gullette) is a mathematician searching for the the code behind all reality, and in one moment, he finds it, and that makes him the target of everyone from Wall Street manipulators to a group of rabbis to his own brain. It may all be a conspiracy from well before the beginning of the film, or it could be Max’s hallucination from start to finish.
It’s an astonishingly confident film; Aronofsky throws us into Max’s headspace with the titles and the first sequence and keeps us there the whole time. One of his inheritances from Lynch is an enveloping, never-silent sound design (including an electronica score from Clint Mansell and others) that’s straight outta Eraserhead; visually, he goes past that, with Matthew Libatique contributing super-high-contrast black-and-white cinematography that gets jumbled with shaking camera, repeated images, extreme close-ups, and shifts to full black and full white. None of this is for show; as much as Gullette’s nervy performance, π makes us as disoriented, fearful, and hypersensitive as Max. It’s like a 90-minute visualization of a migraine attack. No one who saw this would have been surprised by Requiem for a Dream, Noah, The Fountain, or mother!
The mathematical underpinnings (and a great supporting performance by the ever-reliable Mark Margolis, best known to most of us as Uncle Tio on Breaking Bad) keep a sense of order that’s necessary to horror. If you just show random things happening, there’s nothing to fear; but the underpinning idea here is that “mathematics is the language of nature” and it’s a real possibility that Max has crossed into God’s territory and he’s getting hunted down for it. Compare this to A Beautiful Mind and you can really see the how effective it is, because Aronofsky takes the mystery and power of numbers seriously–and π is the most mysterious and powerful number of all. (Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan used a similar idea for the end of their novel Contact, which didn’t make it to the film. I wonder if Aronofsky was inspired by them.)
π streams free on Amazon Prime.