Every Darren Aronofsky Film, Ranked
To coincide with the release of The Whale, Rory Doherty sorts the divisive and religiose director's canon from grating to great...
Is there such a thing as secular divinity? Darren Aronofsky seems to think so. The Brooklyn-born filmmaker is constantly fascinated with intersections of the human and the holy, telling stories about people whose minds and bodies are in deep distress, and who above all else want to reach some form of acceptance or absolution. Religion, often viewed through scientific or esoteric lenses, crops up repeatedly; he never makes his characters play god, but instead shows that being utterly fallible and vulnerable is a way to come closer to the divine.
Frenetic, anxiety-inducing camerawork, bombastic string scores, motifs of self-abuse: all these are hallmarks of Aronofsky’s painfully (but artfully) blunt stories of human suffering and survival. The Whale, out 3 February, with its story of cruelty towards an unwell but resolutely kind individual, fits in perfectly with the rest of his filmography. But how do they all rank against each other?
8. mother! (2017)
Allegories are fun, aren’t they? Being too on-the-nose with his imagery isn’t anything new or particularly reprehensible for Aronofsky, but in choosing to make a film depicting our abuse of nature refracted through the stories of the Bible, Aronofsky managed to neuter the expansive potential of metaphor. As a married young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) witnesses her isolated home being repeatedly invaded and mistreated, mother! becomes an exercise in limiting a story’s impact by giving it an explanation that’s too concrete and singular. None of our ensemble play actual characters, but stand-ins for figures and ideas that exist mainly beyond the screen. Fumbling the opportunity to give Jennifer Lawrence a role on a par with Natalie Portman’s similarly raw performance in Black Swan, Aronofsky instead relegated the capable actress to a passive onlooker with few moments of agency or development. It’s one of Aronofsky’s better looking films, and it effectively simulates a growing sense of chaos, but nothing has a lasting impact.
7. Noah (2014)
It’s always a joy when arthouse directors are given massive budgets with a carte blanche to bring to life their dream projects – even if it's a much lesser joy sitting through them. But with its gorgeous visuals, unique interpretations of the source material, and deliberations on how punishing the act of faith really is, Noah fits in nicely to the rest of Aronofsky's canon despite being about $100 million bigger in budget. Sadly, its achievements don’t outweigh its detractions; before the flood, it’s a bit of an unwieldy slog, and outside of Russell Crowe’s measured take on the Abrahamic patriarch, our characters are stiflingly one-note. It’s a shame, because once the ark sets sail, we settle in for a taut, meditative and claustrophobic hour where painful questions of how to live in the new world are raised. Noah would undoubtedly be a better film if this segment was Aronofsky’s only focus.
6. The Whale (2022)
Like a lot of Aronofsky’s films, The Whale is a hyper-focused drama built around a singular performance, where an overwhelming pain has consumed a character and their surrounding community. Brendan Fraser gives a terrific performance as someone in the throes of a binge eating disorder that has him close to death, prompting him to make one last plea for forgiveness from his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink). Grief, bodily harm, religion failing to mend emotional wounds all make repeat appearances with diminished returns; there’s a tangible sense of something missing in the laboured, elementary drama. The only performance aside from Fraser to resonate is Hong Chau as his nurse; Aronofsky’s love of theatre doesn’t stop the rest of his cast feeling like underprepped thespians. In its most blatantly manipulative stretches (an approach that, again, works better in Arononofsky’s earlier work), The Whale succeeds in moving its audience, but it’s not an emotional impact that holds up to later inspection.
5. Pi (1998)
No film feels more aesthetically “debut-esque” than Aronofsky’s first feature, a raw nerve of a neo-noir about a mathematician who becomes obsessed with finding reality’s numerical patterns – and in the process attracting the attention of Wall Street agents and Hasidic Jewish brethren. Filled with lively characters philosophising about mathematical concepts, the story takes turns into galaxy-brained implausibility, but filtered through the high-contrasted and jarringly edited visual style, Pi compels its audience to follow its lead into paranoia and conspiracy. Aronofsky is clearly fascinated with opposing scientific and philosophical theories on meaning in a chaotic universe, but Pi is less about uncovering seismic revelations about reality, and more about the psychological effects of relentless truth-seeking, especially amongst those coded to see the world’s complex mysteries as unsolved equations. Since the start of his career, Aronofsky has loved unpacking occupations and personalities on a cellular level – perhaps an explanation for calling his production company Protozoa?
4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
In following up his debut, Aronofsky opted for an aggressive, maximalist, and thoroughly depressing tirade against the debilitating effects of addiction. Four New Yorkers dive headfirst into heroin, prescription drugs and an alienation of the soul, all the while deluding themselves that they’re gaining more control over their lives. With its extensive SnorriCamming, dizzying timelapses, and snappy repetitive montages, Requiem for a Dream stylistically screams at its audience from start to finish with little pauses for breath. It can become wearisome (which may be the point?) and there’s certainly nothing subtle or nuanced about it – the way it fearmongers drugs could even be interpreted as conservative. But if it’s nothing more than a shameless melodrama, it’s at least a tightly constructed one. It’s packed with unexpectedly strong performances (from Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans) and reliably impressive ones (from Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn), and it’s not hard to see why it made such a splash at the turn of the century.
3. The Fountain (2006)
Easily Aronofsky’s most underrated and misunderstood film, his third feature was a critical and commercial disappointment – but defined what kind of stories he’d go on to tell. The blueprints for his transcendent, bittersweet endings are all here, and even though characters are suffering like those in Requiem, gone is that film’s ruthless cynicism. Hugh Jackman plays a scientist consumed by his research to cure his wife’s cancer who also embarks on an intertextual odyssey into Conquistador-era South America to find the fabled “Tree of Life.” The Fountain isn’t by any stretch an experimental film, but deals with abstracted identities and emotional states more than anywhere else in his career. Along with a career-best exaltant score by Clint Mansell (as with Requiem, he’s joined by the Kronos Quartet), Aronofsky reaches a cogent, moving theory on eternal life; it exists, but it’s not something you obtain, rather something you join. We cannot live forever on our own terms.
2. Black Swan (2010)
Gone are the days where a $13 million movie can move up its release after rapturous festival acclaim and end up with a worldwide gross of $330 million. Well, if any modern filmmaker could straddle high-art and trashy thrills to big box office success, it might as well be Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan won Natalie Portman an Oscar for her pitch-perfect performance as a childish ballerina whose experience leading “The Swan Lake” causes a psychotic bifurcation and a dissolving of identity. It’s both a commentary on the misogynist contradictions of performance expectations and a heightened, pulpy thriller, moving a tightly-wound giallo or an example of the Asian Extreme. The expertly choreographed cinematography is crucial to the forceful anxiety pulsating through the film, and the screenplay allows for every cast member bar none to act a little bit unhinged. The climax, which rises like a piercing wail, may be Aronofsky’s finest hour.
1. The Wrestler (2008)
Part of a duology on what performers are willing to do for their art, The Wrestler preceded Black Swan with a mournful, meditative take on a much more lowly art. Mickey Rourke gives a performance that could move mountains, portraying a past-his-prime pro-wrestler who needs to be convinced he deserves redemption. The abuse he puts his body through is incredibly difficult to watch, softened only by the warmth of the wrestling community he’s too afraid to leave behind. Aronofsky regards the sport with a curious but cautious affection, not giving airtime to the opinion that Randy is not a true performer but lingering his camera on the searing pain that his audiences are able to shrug off as fake. Despite how difficult it becomes for the film to imagine a life for Randy without wrestling, it hurts even more when he decides to turn back to it. A tragedy of the highest order.
The Whale is released in UK cinemas on 3 February.