Pi is the directorial debut from Darren Aronofsky (Mother!, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) and there was no doubt, on watching this, that you were witnessing the start of something amazing. On a modest budget of less than $70K, Aronofsky gave us a movie that is beautiful, surreal and captivating.
Sean Gullette plays Max Cohen, a genius mathematician who has turned his apartment into a shrine to his one great passion – Mathematics. He spends his days hunting obsessively for patterns, not only in maths but in nature, and even the stock market as well. As Max says “Mathematics is the language of nature”, citing evidence of spirals to be found everywhere in the natural world. Using his home-built supercomputer, Max attempts to divine patterns in the stock markets and in doing so attracts the attention of both Wall Street capitalists and a sect Hasidic Jews who believe that the Torah is a mathematical pattern.
Shot in high contrast black and white, this is a visually arresting movie featuring lots of close up shots, hallucinations, dream sequences and disturbing imagery. If you are even slightly squeamish about blood, or about brains in bathroom sinks, you have been warned in advance. This is a film that delves deep into what lengths a man will go to in pursuit of knowledge and things he’s willing to sacrifice; family, friends, health and perhaps even his sanity.
Filmed without any location permits in New York, forcing the crew to always have someone on lookout in case the police came by, the crew did a marvelous job capturing the feel of the city. This film is steeped in it, from the tracking shots of the streets, the buildings, the parks, coffee shops and subways and yet in the midst of this sea of people, you are always left with the impression that Max simply doesn’t quite fit in, his social awkwardness worn on his sleeve at all times, pushed home by repeated shots of people looking to camera, looking at him, marking him out.
The soundtrack is brought to us by the supremely talented Clint Mansell (Moon, Doom, High-Rise) and was, in fact, the first soundtrack he’d composed. The music here is electronica heavy and features tracks not only from Clint, but Aphex Twin, Massive Attack and Orbital to name but a few. Veering from the thoughtful industry of “Kalpol Intro” to the rasping beats of “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” and the frantic siren wail of “We Got the Gun” the soundtrack fits the stark look and feel of the movie perfectly and stands well on its own.
Pi wouldn’t work without the talents of Sean Gullette who manages to make Max sympathetic and believable in his obsession, ensuring that the audience is not driven away by him, but taken on the same journey, leaving the viewer as hungry for answers as Max is. The role also called for a great deal of physicality in later scenes during Max’s headache attack scenes and he sells it perfectly, holding you in that moment, drawing you in to share Max’s pain and frustration.
In contrast to Max we have the character of Sol (Max Margolis), a friend and mentor for Max who also spent his days researching mathematics and specifically Pi as well. He attempts to serve as the anchor for Max, chiding him to rest, to ensure that his obsession doesn’t cause him to rush blindly into things and make rash judgments. As he says in the film –
“As soon as you discard scientific rigour you’re no longer a mathematician. You’re a numerologist!”
With this film, Darren Aronofsky showed that he was a talent to be reckoned with, the film showing many themes that he would go on to explore in later films such as Noah, The Fountain and even The Wrestler, themes of obsession, transcendence, and religion, pushing his characters to the breaking point and beyond in their search for some singular truth or meaning in their lives.
Pi deserves a place in every movie fan’s collection.
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