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Pi

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 26 June 1998

  Written and Directed by Darren Aronofsky,
from a story by Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, and Eric Watson.

Starring Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis,
Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib, Pamela Hart, Ajay Naidu,
Joanne Gordon, and Stephen Pearlman.

This enervatingly bizarre black-and-white sci-fi independent film was the buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Best Director award). Like its central eccentric, a renegade mathematician named Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) whose startling discovery about Chaos Theory may affect all order/disorder in the universe, writer-director Darren Aronofsky creates a troubling psychological thriller, a film that delves deeply into its genius character's psyche and watches his demise from within (hallucinatory migraines) and without (mysterious brokerage firm heavies, ultra-orthodox Kabbalistic cultists). It's an opiate-induced, caffeinated, super-octane trip, powered by frantic high contrast photography by Matthew Libatique, a riveting electronic score by Clint Mansell (a former member of the band Pop Will Eat Itself), brilliant sound design by Brian Emrich, and a straight-on assortment of Kafkaesque New York characters.

Shot in the Big Apple over a one month period in the fall of 1996, Aronofsky's biggest accomplishment isn't so much the film itself (well, actually it is – but I'm trying to make a point, so give me some leeway, ok?), but the budget. $60,000. Yes, look again. $60,000. Special effects and AA batteries included. Associate Producer came up with the financing scheme: ask every person the producers and director knew for $100. No big studio backing, just friends and family. Then put your investors to work. As actors. As crew. Gamey? You bet. Payoff? Big…as in BIG! Distributor Artisan Entertainment poneyed up more than a million bucks for a better than 16-to-1 reward to those friends and family. Good things come to those who make startlingly films like Pi.

Pi is both the sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet and the symbol for the ratio of the circle's circumference to its diameter. I used this character few times since high school and college. Aronofsky's (and consequently Max's) obsession with this mysterious figure dovetails with his interest in Chaos Theory, a study of forever-changing complex systems that affects changes in all things. Thus the pounding out of this critique on my computer may increase the temperature in my room and ultimately cause small atmospheric changes that could effect weather patterns in Athens. Heavy. And I'll be among many who might find this all confusing, but the filmmakers entice you into their claustrophobic world and you just have to sit back, watch, and, what, scream? Perhaps.

With a make-shift super-computer in his cramped New York walk-up, security-obsessive Max, powered up by math mentor Sol Robeson (Absolute Power's Mark Margolis), is on the verge of solving the chaos puzzle (in the guise of a 216-digit number) and its ability to predict complex stock market fluctuations. His brilliant discovery is closely followed by an aggressive, materialistic Wall Street company and a sect of deeply mystical Jews hopeful of unbolting the locks to their ancient holy texts. As Max's massive headaches, seizures, and blackouts intensify and the pursuers close in, the film pulls you in deeper (dizzying and low camera angles, noisy soundtrack, haunting images of a detached brain) as all these forces converge for a terrifying, surrealistic finale.

Is the messiah at hand? Sorry, you'll have to see for yourself. Aronofsky's dark vision is exciting, edgy, and thrilling. Sure, he's made his backers happy. Now it's your turn.


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