DARREN ARONOFSKY IS, in a word, ostentatious. This unfettered zeal for sensation has produced several harrowing milestones—2000’s ‘Requiem for a Dream’ first among them, 2010’s ‘Black Swan’ only the latest—earning the director plaudits as well as skeptics. ‘Pi’, his feature debut, is no less ‘big’ for its lack of superstars and miniscule budget; some viewers might even find its deliberately grainy black and white picture and lo-fi aesthetic to be just as adventurous as the CGI wonderscapes seen in 2006’s ‘The Fountain’.
But whereas ‘The Fountain’ had a deep beauty in its spaces and fine actors to inhabit them, ‘Pi’ smacks a little too much of cerebral film school chutzpah: passionate creativity unrefined and without discretion. Following the misanthrope polymath Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) on his quest for the core pattern of life, ‘Pi’ radiates with the paranoia and rabidity of its protagonist. We experience in vivid detail his splitting migraines, see the world through his narrowing perspective like a pinhole camera, and begin to suspect even the slightest gesture, eschewing all coincidence. In moderation, each of these feelings is an effective point of leverage for a filmmaker to exploit. But when piled on so vigorously, the result is a numbing sensationalism that lacks for subtlety. ‘Pi’, as a result, is a tremendously loud whizz-bang, but one without much lasting force.
Throughout this charade, Sean Gullette does his best to keep us riveted to an unlikely premise. With his aquiline profile and the restless gaze of a man on the fringe, he’s a little reminiscent of actor Timothy Carey, but he does not possess Carey’s natural gravitas and instead seems to push for in performance what he lacks in character. And there is plenty of push indeed. Gullette is best as a physical actor, conveying the malcontent, suspicion, and discomfort that define Max’s internal world. But once out of his boarded-up apartment and in pursuit (or having to explain his pursuit) of The Pattern, he is considerably more wooden.
Mark Margolis is the film’s real highlight as Sol Robeson, Max’s retired mentor and a canny old prof who shuffles about a cluttered apartment delivering useful bits of plot exposition. Though he has nothing to do with the subplot concerning Max’s coveted computer chip—an awkward red herring—Margolis’s commanding performance makes the strongest case for our acceptance of Max’s mania. On the other side of Max is Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a Hasidic numerologist who entwines Max in his own sect’s obsessive quest for measurable patterns in life. The only difference is that Meyer’s answer is the name of God, whereas Max’s is the means to predict the stock market.
This discrepancy leads to a rather out-of-place theological tangent that serves as the film’s ideological climax. Max awakes—shorn, seated, and surrounded by Meyer’s cohorts—and finds himself engaged in a debate with a suddenly looming old rabbi. The stark overhead lighting invokes a prison, or a tribunal, and is beautiful to watch. But the camera does not take good advantage of the space, preferring to show each character almost exclusively in tight reverse shots, and the editing is too swift to allow the audience time to breathe in the space and feel menaced by it. And so, hurtling along without any breath left to lose, ‘Pi’s shock-and-awe physical peak becomes just an exercise in technique, not an abiding revelation.
We must also allow that Aronofksy could well have planned it all this way. His sensorial assault certainly is thorough; the film’s very title screen is an orgiastic eruption of flashing geometric symbols and equations, backed by a frenetic 90s breakbeat. Maybe it is just a New York way of filmmaking: mile-a-minute, neurotic, with every sense bombarded from every angle. So then it shall be a style worth visiting, but never for too long.