Darren Aronofsky‘s feature debut Pi certainly hasn’t been dulled by the passage of time. Requiem For A Dream might outgun it for sheer intensity; The Fountain may deal in more sweeping, existential brushstrokes; while Black Swan drips with probably an even more palpable sense of paranoia/psychosis. But Pi is Aronofsky’s own origins story – and fifteen years on, beneath the outer layer of high definition grain, it remains arguably his most polished work to date.
From the frenetic opening credits, to that final shot gazing up towards the sun, Pi barely pauses for breath. Aronofsky’s film dives headfirst down a nightmarish rabbit hole, slowing, only momentarily, to make sure we remain close behind. It doesn’t take long, however, before we begin to share protagonist Max Cohen’s (Sean Gullette) obsession with Pi – the search for the mythical 216-digit number that Max believes is the skeleton key to unlocking and understanding everything around us.
Pi, however, is so much more than a film about numbers. As Max himself says – “The number is nothing! It’s the meaning, the syntax”. And one of the most intriguing elements of Pi – beyond its conceit – is its daring use of structure. ‘Faith in chaos’ reads the film’s tagline – yet, this could just as well be an oblique manifesto. Aronofsky constructs a world of carefully mediated confusion, which for 84-minutes, we are invited to inhabit. It’s not always pleasant viewing, however; and the meaning of much of what we do see, is “dangled” (to quote Pamela Hart‘s character Marcy Dawson) like an unsolvable equation.
On the most fundamental level, a significant amount of this ambiguity is achieved by keeping us in a state of permanent disorientation. Aronofsky dials up the contrast to give a crazed, black or white aesthetic, like the Japanese Go Boards seen throughout – while recurring motifs and rapid-fire edits play over the top of Clint Mansell‘s foreboding score; and Autechre and Aphex Twin’s caustic-industrial-noise.
As with Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) in Richard Linklater‘s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, every step Max takes appears to be surveyed and monitored. The main factions following Max’s progress with a keen eye, are an unnamed Wall Street firm, headed by Marcy Dawson; and a Hasidic cabalistic sect, fronted by Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman). The only thing they share, is an obsession with getting their hands on Pi at all costs. As Marcy so eloquently shouts at Max: “You don’t understand it, do you? I don’t give a shit about you! I only care about what’s in your fucking head!”.
But Max’s head soon becomes the problem. As we delve deeper and deeper into Max’s world, the cracks in Max’s psyche become more and more visible. This, after all, is a character we see poking a spectre of his own brain, near some steps on the New York subway. Plagued by terrible headaches, blackouts and strange episodes, Max is the quintessential unreliable narrator – a device Aronofsky frequently exploits, in order to make us question everything.
While Max believes the complexities of nature can be condensed into a string of numbers – by playing on Max’s instability – Pi becomes a string of answerable questions. Did Max’s mentor Sol (Mark Margolis) ever really exist? Or was he a visual metaphor for Max’s voice of reason? Is Max mad? Or is his madness simply a product of him grappling with something greater than all of us? And what about that ending? Aronofsky never looks to provide answers, but he sure knows how to pose a question.
Yet, for all the lingering questions, Pi is an exercise in control. Perfectly paced, tightly scripted; while Gullette is magnetic throughout. Aronofsky’s debut might be pure, sensory overload – but its style and substance are married in yin-yang-like harmony. Paradoxically, then, for a film so centred on one man’s search for a number, the number that best describes Pi is simple. Five.