By Erin Free, Gill Pringle, Philip Berk & Mark Pilkington

“I just push it as far as I can,” producer/director, Darren Aronofsky, told FilmInk in 2010. “In today’s world, it’s hard to create images and ideas that people will remember. We get so much choice on TV, there are so many movies out there, we have the internet…I just want to create an experience that lasts. That usually has to be a pretty intense journey, and I want to give people their money’s worth when they go to the cinema.”

A master stylist and constant pusher of the cinematic envelope, Darren Aronofsky was born on February 12 in 1969 in Brooklyn, New York, and gravitated toward the arts from an early age. After high school, Aronofsky went to Harvard University to study film, where he received major acclaim for his senior thesis project, Supermarket Sweep. His path to features, however, was a slow and circuitous one, with Aronofsky not releasing his debut, PI, until five years after his graduation. Still one of the director’s strangest films, 1998’s PI tracks Max Cohen (Sean Gullette, who had also appeared in Supermarket Sweep), a highly-strung genius who believes that mathematics is the language of nature.


Filmed in smudgy, washed out black-and-white on a paltry budget of just $60,000, PI is a non-negotiable formula for complete and utter weirdness. Despite an obvious lack of money, the ideas pour out so quickly that the film bolts like a freight train. With reckless abandon, Aronofsky throws everything into a boiling pot and lets the ingredients steam and collide with each other: maths as a soul language; madness as prophecy; computers gaining consciousness by decoding their composition; the stock exchange as a prime example of organised chaos; and religion as a series of rigid and tabulated formulas.

PI – which became a major arthouse hit, raking in a surprising $3 million at the box office, and rating as an influential force – still stands as a head trip of the first delirious order, made for next to nothing by a brave and bold filmmaker on the rise. “PI was made within its budget range,” Aronofsky told Tripod upon the film’s release. “It was constructed out of what we could and couldn’t do. We took everything that we could do for that money, and pushed it as far as we could. We took Terry Gilliam’s brilliance and copycatted it by taking old technology and putting it into a hyper-future reality. If we’d had more money, I probably would have made Scream 4! From the profits from that, I could have been making PI till the day I die!”

Emboldened by the success of PI, Aronofsky took it up a budgetary notch with 2000’s Requiem For A Dream, an adaptation of Hubert Selby’s bleak, take-no-prisoners novel. One of the toughest, most uncompromising films of that or any year, this shockingly literate piece of street poetry documents drugs and despair, and challenges the audience every step of the way with its narrative downward spiral, which follows the journeys into addiction of young junkie, Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), his pill-dependent mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), and his once promising but increasingly debased girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly).

Requiem for a Dream

As unflinching as it is stylish, Requiem For A Dream was the true announcement of Darren Aronofsky as a major talent to watch. The critics raved and the film did brisk business at arthouse cinemas. “I know that people will react violently to the film, but it is about how far the collapse goes,” the director told the BBC just prior to the film’s release. “If we held any punches, it would undermine exactly what we were doing. The deepest, darkest images had to be there. The intensity had to be there. It’s not going to be for everyone.”

Aronofsky experienced plenty of intensity off-screen with his next project. Written by the director, The Fountain was envisioned as a big, sprawling sci-fi epic with a budget to match. The cerebral, time-jumping tale of a scientist desperately searching for the medical breakthrough that will save the life of his cancer-stricken wife, the film was pitched to shoot in Australia with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles. Now a faded memory, the Australian film industry was then in a loud, media-splashed uproar when the production shut down due to the sudden exit of Brad Pitt just seven weeks prior to the start of shooting. With the actor taking advantage of the escalating budgetary pressure engulfing The Fountain to chase the bigger paycheque of the historical adventure, Troy, many Aussie crew members were left jobless. Aronofsky eventually scaled back the budget on the film, and relaunched it in Canada with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the central roles

The Fountain

In a 2005 interview with FilmInk, Weisz (at that time married to Aronofsky) revealed that her husband still felt the scars of the production uprooting from Australia. “Well, it wasn’t his fault that Brad Pitt dropped out,” Weisz sighed. “But, yeah, there was a whole crew there whose livelihood depended on it. They may have put out a mortgage on a new flat, or something. Who knows how many lives were affected? He felt terrible about it, but it was completely out of his control.” From the muck, however, Aronofsky crafted something beautiful, as his reconfigured and considerably downsized take on The Fountain (which was released in 2006 to muted reviews and box office, but retains a cult following today) rose above the occasional confusion of its plot to tell a truly transcendent love story.

After this deeply cerebral outing, Aronofsky got decidedly more physical with his next film, impressively flexing his creative muscles in 2008 with The Wrestler. Broken down and busted up, the film’s eponymous anti-hero is Randy “The Ram” Robinson (brilliantly played by Mickey Rourke in one of Hollywood’s greatest ever comebacks), a once proud pro-wrestler now scratching along the bottom of the barrel in second string regional tournaments while working in a deli to make ends meet. When Randy suffers a heart attack at the end of a bout, he sets out to right the wrongs in his messy life, including reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and embarking on a relationship with an equally damaged stripper (Marisa Tomei).

The Wrestler

Following the quiet response to The Fountain, The Wrestler had critics and festival audiences practically crying with joy, and the film figured heavily come awards time, with copious Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. “I knew that Darren would demand everything inside of me, which meant that I would have to visit very dark, painful places,” Mickey Rourke told FilmInk just prior to the film’s release. “The way that I work, everything becomes real in the moment, and then there’s another take, and another take, and you’re bringing stuff out that’s very hurtful. I knew that Darren would want that. Darren tells me, ‘You’ve got to listen to everything I say, and I can’t pay you’, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s go to work.’”

From the sweat-stained, blood-smeared world of low rent pro wrestling, Aronofsky moved to the far more rarefied milieu of ballet with Black Swan. In this densely layered, unnerving psychological drama, Natalie Portman stars as Nina Thayer, a professional dancer who has been entrusted with playing the dual lead role in her company’s high profile production of Swan Lake. Nina’s elevation to prima ballerina, however, forces aside the company’s ageing number one dancer (Winona Ryder). Meanwhile, a new dancer – the free spirited Lilly (Mila Kunis) – is hired as Nina’s understudy. Before long, the emotionally repressed Nina is forced to explore her dark side as she fights to keep the coveted lead role. With her adoring, suffocating mother (Barbara Hershey) and her company’s predatory director (Vincent Cassel) watching on from the sidelines, Nina slowly, inexorably starts to unravel.

Black Swan

“My sister was a dancer,” Aronofsky told FilmInk of the genesis of his interest in the project. “She got pretty serious about it, but I knew nothing about it myself. But I imagined that it would be an interesting world, just in the same way that I thought the world of wrestling would be an interesting one. If anything, ballet is an even more complex world to base a story in. The more that we looked into it, the more interesting it became. People often go to the movies to see something that they haven’t seen before, and I hope that this fits the bill. This film took eight years to develop to get to the starting line. The thing that pulls me back to a project, and the reason why I end up choosing it, is because there’s just something about it that I connect to. That makes me want to continue to do all of the heavy lifting involved in bringing it to fruition. The only reason that these projects make it is because there’s something about them drawing us in. We’ll keep going back to it, keep nurturing it, and keep trying to figure it out. That’s how these things get done.”

Black Swan was a delirious high for Darren Aronofsky, with the film garnering across-the-board acclaim and a Best Actress Oscar (among other gongs) for Natalie Portman. From there, he sailed into far more rocky waters. With his long-gestating dream project, Noah, Aronofsky engineered a film that stood ominously outside his comfort zone: a Biblical epic by way of The Lord Of The Rings. Yes, this was the classic story of Noah (a commanding Russell Crowe) and his ark – complete with animals rumbling in, two by two – but Aronofsky ripped the tale from its Biblical moorings, and set it adrift on a roaring sea of trippy imagery and hard-hitting storytelling. A very strange mix indeed (but one with an ultimately hypnotic quality), Noah saw Aronofsky dig not only into the richly freaky psychology of the tale, but also into its crammed hull of visual possibilities.


Noah is actually the first apocalypse story,” Aronofsky wryly told FilmInk at Paramount’s famed Hollywood lot while cuing up a screening of early footage, going on to repeat the much-told story about how, as a twelve-year-old boy, he was tasked with writing a poem about peace. His ode about a dove that flies to Noah’s ark won a United Nations contest, and sparked a lifetime of belief in his own powers of creativity. “It’s been fifty years since anyone has done The Old Testament, and we really wanted to re-invent the Biblical epic for the 21st century. No long beards, no robes, no sandals, and no Middle East landscape. Even non-believers are going to be really excited if they can get over the hump that this is not your grandmother’s Noah.”

Aronofsky could never be accused of not challenging his audiences. While Noah was far from a huge success, the director was far from cowed, next pushing his viewers even further with his caterwauling psychological horror miasma, mother! “Sorry for what I am about to do to you,” he gamely told the audience while introducing the film at The Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Starring a mind-blowingly up-for-it Jennifer Lawrence, Mother! is an explosive Biblical and environmental allegory driven by grotesque imagery and a strain of metaphor so rich that many missed the connections in the cinema. It’s a bold cinematic masterstroke that sees Lawrence’s fraught and highly tested character protecting her much loved home against a barrage of assaults.


“Lightning struck for me as a writer when I realised my initial intentions of creating this allegory in a very Luis Bunuel type of way,” Aronofsky told Indiewire of this rare self-penned effort, “taking a piece of a world and confining it to a space and making it a conversation about society, lined up with a personal human story, and I figured out how to structure it with a biblical core, and was able to write so quickly.”

Deliriously strange and aggressive in its originality and obvious aim to confront and provoke, Mother! is pure, unadulterated Darren Aronofsky, at his divisive, daring best. “I told my father,” he once said, “‘Dad, all I want in my life is for people to either cheer or boo. I just don’t want anything in the middle.’ I can’t spoon-feed. I just don’t do that. My job, first and foremost, is to entertain and scare the audience.”

Mother! is available from January 17, 2018


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