Apr 5, 2015

Review: Pi (1998)

I haven't quite seen all of Darren Aronofsky's films yet, but I've always admired his ability in making them disturbingly memorable. Unless you're a robot, it's impossible to forget Requiem for a Dream which made me want to stay far, far away from any kind of drug forever. And ever. The Wrestler is probably my favourite of them all though with such an unexpectedly moving performance courtesy of Mickey Rourke.

Pi was the film that started it all for Aronofsky. Shot on a budget of only $60,000, it was bought by Artisan for $1 million and made over $3 million in North America in a limited release. Not a bad return at all. Including home media, it's done extremely good business for such a "small" movie. I love shoestring budget successes like this and it goes to show that you don't need loud action sequences or a bunch of CGI to get viewers on the edge of their seat.


At a Glance

Genre: drama, thriller
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Produced by: Eric Watson, Tyler Brodie, David Godbout, etc.
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
Music by: Clint Mansell
Running time: 84 minutes
Production company: Protozoa Pictures, Harvest Filmworks, Truth and Soul Pictures, etc.
Distributed by: Live Film & Mediaworks Inc., Artisan Entertainment, Lions Gate Films, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $60,000
Box office: $3,221,152 (North America)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib, Ajay Naidu, Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao, Espher Lao Nieves, Joanne Gordon, Lauren Fox



Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a number theorist who believes that there is an order to everything in the universe, no matter how chaotic it may be. Using different mathematical concepts, he desperately tries to find the elusive number that will unlock and explain everything. Despite his mentor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) warning him to stop what he's doing, Max presses on to the detriment of his personal health.


Darren Aronofsky shot Pi guerrilla style since the production did not have permission to film in New York City. Done all in black and white with tons of shaky, handheld camera, these stylistic choices enhance the story of Pi even further. Aronofsky makes us understand pretty early on that Max is a recluse who suffers from severe cluster headaches and slight paranoia. His condition progressively worsens though as he gets closer and closer to the magical number that he's looking for.

Saying that Pi has style is an understatement. It oozes style like there's no tomorrow, but it's important to note that it's style not without substance. Harsh lighting and sound are a big part of Pi and are there to reflect the increasingly unstable mental condition of Max. He suffers through strange visions and hallucinations during his crippling headache scenes and it's honestly quite scary to think about why Max is suffering like this. It raises the question that maybe humanity isn't supposed to actually know this number. Maybe we're not supposed to understand how the universe works. 

Seriously, the implications of Pi freak me out. Here's one little guy in his tiny little apartment trying to find the key to the universe and there's something out there trying to stop him. Max also has to contend with Wall Streeters looking to take advantage of his mathematical knowledge to make money. He's even being watched by some Hasidic Jews looking for a certain number in the Torah that's meant to bring about the messianic age. Still, what freaks me out the most is that something is trying to stop him from understanding that 216 digit number. Is it God? Who knows?

This could all just be a product of Max's unstable mental condition that we're seeing through his eyes, but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to watch. Seeing a man suffer like this is rarely as powerful as it is in Pi and that's compounded by the great, committed performance from Sean Gullette. He takes the Max character who's already a little volatile to begin with and takes him down a winding path of self-destruction until the film's shocking climax. It's truly a disturbing ending.

Pi even found a way to make math interesting to watch which is quite an accomplishment if you ask me. Let's just say that math was never my favourite subject in high school. Even so, the possibility of seeing a whole bunch of calculations being scribbled on paper doesn't sound all that interesting to me anyway. Not on paper that is. Aronofsky finds a way to make it interesting though and quite thrilling actually.

Despite a miniscule budget, Pi delivers its thrills in a big budget way. The best way to describe it would be a mix between a 70's paranoia film and something from the mind of David Lynch or David Cronenberg. Aronofsky's style enhances the film's story beautifully and Sean Gullette astounds as a mathematician driven to madness. If only all films could be half as thrilling as Pi is.



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