Please note that this post is a critique of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), not a review. Therefore, this article would be better enjoyed and understood if the reader has already seen this film. Please be aware that there are spoilers ahead.
Very few films achieve perfection and Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut is certainly not one that does. However, the swiftness and originality of Pi is enough to captivate those of us who have come to love dark, industrial worlds such as that of Eraserhead. Stylistically, Pi does resemble the work of a young David Lynch, but while Lynch frequently uses dreams and surealistic images, Aronofsky delves less into his character’s hallucinations and more into the obsession and paranoia that fuels them.
In Pi, we are introduced to a man whose only possessions exist for the purpose of chasing after an elusive two hundred and sixteen digit number. That man, Max Cohen, lives a life that is lonely and furthermore, horrifying: he suffers cluster headaches, hallucinations, and extreme paranoia, he spends most of the day staring at numbers on his computer, and he plays an ancient Chinese board game called Go with a man old enough to be his father. Max always appears reluctant to talk, unless the conversation happens to involve numbers or mathematics. The only thing that Max seems to be living for is the number, which somehow contains the pattern that takes place all throughout nature. Max believes the number could predict the stock market, but when he becomes involved with a group of Hasidic Jews who are also searching for it as well, it is revealed that the numbers may also represent the unspeakable name of God which may bring about the Messianic Age. If the Jews are right, Max’s obsession might actually be justifiable and indeed, the fact that the number is eventually placed directly in Max’s head hints at some sort of an epiphany. Not long after Max receives the number, he performs a lobotomy on himself with a power drill, thus confirming that Max had little interest in using the power of the number for his advantage. For Max, it was something to keep him alive, a search for something bigger than himself, something to prove that there is peace and order outside the confusion and pain of his everyday life.
Because the film doesn’t quite become the ingenius thriller that it strives to be, the flaws that exist become a little more obvious. There are scenes where the actors simply overplay their roles and enter into fits of rage that are hardly necessary. The grainy black-and-white photography can be seen as annoyingly crude or strikingly original; indeed, those who have seen Pi are likely to describe the film in one of those very ways. I have heard many describe the movie as “ridiculous” and “implausible.” Such a label, in my opinion, should scarcely be used when in discussion of a science fiction film. After all, sci-fi films are made to inspire our awe, not convert us to seeing life in a new way. Granted, Pi does seem to be interested in the possibilities of science and math to explain the universe, but the film is much more personal than that. The obsessive behaviors of a man of science are at the center of this story. With Max’s hallucinations and extreme paranoia, how can we even trust that any of his experiences with the Jews or the Wall Street agents actually happened? Max may just be imagining his incredible search for numbers. Since almost anything in the film could be a product of Max’s mind at work, Pi plays much better on an emotional level than an intellectual one. But that is what movies are best at, is it not? The purpose of Pi is to find emotional truth, not scientific truth.
Another popular phrase used by those who disliked Aronofsky’s film is “painful to watch.” Such a statement, which is usually targeting the film’s stylistic choices rather than the film’s plausibility, is strictly a matter of opinion. While I personally enjoyed the no-budget look and feel, the dizzying music, and the sloppy editing, I can also certainly see why others might be completely repulsed. If one enjoys B-movies and paranoia thrillers, Pi can be easily enjoyed just as long as it is met on its own terms. I believe it is a good, solid picture; the strong opinions of the audience members will make it out to be more or less. Fourteen years after its release, the film is not generally seen as an ingenius, groundbreaking movie, but rather a new cult classic whose most important contribution to cinema is the introduction of a major directorial talent.