Darren Aronofsky is not known for making happy movies. In fact, if you look at any conversation or list about depressing and bleak movies, chances are you’ll find an Aronofsky film there. With six films under his belt and a seventh coming out this week, I felt it would be a good time to discuss his filmography, and rank just how absolutely horrible it makes us feel.
6. Noah (2014)
I almost put Noah as number one on this list. Not for being the most painful film Aronofsky has made to date, but mainly because of how disappointing and bad it is. While Aronofsky’s second huge passion project is far from the worst film out there, Noah is the only bad film Aronofsky has made. That’s straight up honesty coming from a guy who owns three separate copies of the film because of how much I love Aronofsky.
However, there still some darkness in here. In fact, the whole movie is a bleak look at the darkness of humanity. While the writing doesn’t let us feel personally upset and attacked like the rest of his films, Noah is still at its core is about how horrible humanity is and basically how we all deserve to die and let the animals and nature take over, which is pretty dark stuff. The image of people in Tubal-cain’s (played incredibly by Ray Winstone) enemy encampment trading their children and spouses for meat and ultimately tearing apart a living goat and devouring it as it still beats is the most standout to me. A few other good dark spots are Noah’s constant attempts to sacrifice a baby as well as him and his entire family listening to the remaining humans scream as they drown during the flood.
5. Pi (1998)
Going back to his roots, Aronofsky’s first film is the next one on this list of pain. Pi is also a tough one in terms of being personally upsetting, but it’s far better than Noah at least, which makes the darker aspects of the film tougher to swallow.
Pi’s study in obsession is a good starting point for people who want to get into Aronofsky. This film is more damaging to a single person — its protagonist Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) and his obsession with numbers and predicting the stock market. This leads to being confronted by several people, a war street group of agents violently trying to get him to give them his work, a Hasidic Jew who seeks to use Max’s skills with numbers to unlock the secrets of the Torah, and Max’s mentor Sol (Mark Margolis) who looks to stop Max from spiraling deeper into his obsession with numbers which eventually Max takes personally.
A black and white surreal film, a lot of the moments of darkness come from Max’s health problems: from cluster headaches being portrayed as insane as they sound with loud noises and quick cuts to make the audience feel uneasy, as well as his anxiety disorder and hallucinations. One such hallucination is probably the most unsettling scene in the film when Max sees a brain sitting at the subway station and each time he attempts to touch it the audio cuts to loud train noises unsettling the viewer more and more until he finally touches it and passes out. The darkest part, though purest, is the ending though when he takes a drill to his temple to attempt to perform trepanning to himself, similar to a lobotomy. While later on we see him talking with a young neighbor girl and pleased when he can’t think of the answer to a simple mathematics equation, thus proving now that his obsession with numbers is over he is finally at peace, it’s also an incredibly tough moment to swallow that he had to go to such lengths to become happy. While not the most depressing film in his filmography, Pi still proves to be an unsettling and disturbing look into an obsession that Aronofsky seems to be personally obsessed with himself.
4. Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan was the first Aronofsky film I ever saw and it was a doozy! Sweet young Nina Sayers, played impeccably by Natalie Portman, is cast as the Swan Queen in the ballet Swan Lake. However, she is not capable of playing the Black Queen as she is so worried about getting everything perfect and not able to cut loose the way she needs to in order to portray the character. This film, quite arguably very loosely based on Satoshi Kon’s anime film Perfect Blue which Aronofsky also owns the remake rights to, is full of insane tension and dread that never lets up.
The darkness in this movie would be unparalleled if it weren’t for Aronofsky’s other filmography. Here we have Nina who is overly coddled by her intensely emotionally abusive mother pulling at her to stay her little daughter, who she is OBSESSED with by the way, so obsessed that she cries while painting multiple portraits of Nina, and on the other hand her director trying to seduce her in order for her to finally cut loose and portray the character she was cast for. The entire film is Nina being forced into doing anything and everything that she doesn’t want to do.
On top of that, we have a level of horrific body horror throughout, mostly surrounded by fingernail related wounds, some of which Nina is in control of and some of which she isn’t which adds an amount of stress behind each scene and close up any time her nails are on screen. While not the most depressing of Aronofsky’s filmography, it’s still a darn bleak flick culminating in Nina finally doing what everyone wants from her and cutting loose only to literally lose herself.
3. The Fountain (2006)
Now we kick it into high gear! The Fountain was Aronofsky’s first big passion project: it was originally supposed to be made with a $70 million budget starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette, but after Pitt left the film it ultimately stalled. Aronofsky felt it in his bones that this project needed to be made, so he reworked the script and turned it into a graphic novel with art by Kent Williams. Afterwards, he decided that that wasn’t enough (though the graphic novel is stunning) and he went into making a low budget version of the film starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
The Fountain deals with darkness in a whole new level here throwing us into the lives of Tommy and Izzi, the former being a doctor and scientist whose only goal right now is curing the brain tumor that is killing his wife Izzi, the latter, who is a writer and overall beautiful human being coming to terms with the fact that she will not make it. The bleakness here happens mostly from Tommy’s downward spiral into his work and his understandably intense work on brain tumors and how all of that affects his relationship with his wife. We start off by seeing him lose his wedding ring, symbolically showing us that he is losing his wife even before she has passed. Going to work instead of spending time with Izzi, despite being good intentions, takes its toll as instead of cherishing the last moments he has with her he leaves her alone at home. Perhaps the hardest moment, though, is when Izzi is in the hospital dying and Tommy’s boss comes in to say that his hard work paid off and the tumor on one of his test monkeys is going away, and then returning to Izzi’s room to find her gone. Despite his best efforts, everything feels in vain, which is basically the point of the entire story. Obsession hurts, even if it’s with the best of intentions.
2. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Perhaps Aronofsky’s best-known film is the insane and depressing masterpiece of anti-drug cinema. Based on Hubert Selby Jr’s 1978 novel of the same name, Requiem for a Dream follows four main characters and how their lives change through drugs. Through this film we see three friends Harry (Jared Leto), Marion (Jennifer Connelly), and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) go from the highs to the very dark lows of drug usage, along with the most tragic story of Harry’s mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) accidental spiral into addiction with diet pills.
This whole movie sucks. I don’t mean in a bad way, it’s a masterpiece, but damn it is one of the hardest to watch films to ever exists. Early on most of the characters are happy, but that doesn’t last long. Most of the film is a downward spiral into the darkest things that can happen through drug addiction. To be brief, as I could be here forever discussing just how dark and upsetting this movie really it, we have Harry who loses his girlfriend Marion to drug addiction in the sense that she cares more about her high than him as well as him eventually losing his arm to a needle infection, Tyrone being stuck in prison due to drugs and feeling the constant pain that he is alone as well as let down his mother (which is an insanely tough thing to be honest), Marion eventually selling her body for sex parties to score her days worth of drugs, and most tragic Sara being stuck in a mental hospital with hallucinations and ultimately electroshock therapy that turns her essentially brain dead.
If I had to pick out the hardest thing about this movie, it would be the horrific hallucination that comes right before Sara’s inevitable hospitalization. Here we have her imagining being on her favorite television program, her dream since that will finally make her “be somebody,” and thin enough to fit into her fancy red dress thanks to her doctor prescribed diet pills. Eventually, the hallucination kicks it up a notch when the visions of the TV host, played by Christopher McDonald, and her fake self-show up in her room and start driving her insane. That coupled with the insatiable appetite she has from not eating take her episode to new levels of scary when her refrigerator turns into a monster and attempts to eat her. That scene along with everything after at the hospital is perhaps the bleakest filmmaking I have ever seen. It’s not a movie to sit down and enjoy, but it is a phenomenal film that is worth the pain to watch it just every once in a while.
1. The Wrestler (2008)
Honestly, I always thought the number one spot on this list of how just utterly painful Aronofsky’s films are would be Requiem for a Dream. However, after rewatching all of these movies, and despite Requiem being insanely dark and depressing, it’s come to my attention that The Wrestler just does it better. The Mickey Rourke-led film about Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging professional wrestler still getting into the ring way past his prime, is by far Aronofsky’s best film and it’s the level of personal attention we get with this character that makes it number one on this list.
While Requiem for a Dream has more characters that have bleaker outcomes, The Wrestler tops the list thanks to the film putting its single main character at the focus of the film. We have a good kind man in a place in his life where he is told he can no longer do the one thing he is good at and loves: wrestling. After having a heart attack and bypass, Randy is told to quit wrestling or else he will die. In doing so, he leaves the one place that he ever felt he belonged. However, he tries his very best: he tries his hand at working a normal retail day job, attempts to form a genuine relationship with a stripper Pam (Marisa Tomei) as well as follow Pam’s advice to try and patch things up with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).
This being an Aronofsky film, though, nothing ends up going right at all. We follow Randy as he is belittled by the world around him for his “dumb” lifestyle choice in professional wrestling, unfortunately fails at all of his relationships, the most heartbreaking being the one with his daughter, by honestly being a pretty big screw up, and eventually ends up back in the ring to fight his big anniversary fight which is the worst thing he could do, but that’s the one place he feels like he actually belongs. Robert Siegel phenomenal script shows us that even though Randy messes up his life often, he is really just a nice big teddy bear of a guy who just wants to be happy and that’s what makes it all the more painful to watch. The last half hour or so, the second he screws things up with his daughter again, culminating in an incredible scene and performance by both Rourke and Wood, is the hardest 30 minutes in an Aronofsky film for its simple use of dread. We know what’s coming, we know that this is just the catalyst to the final bleak act of the film where his entire world goes sour and that utter and heartbreaking dread never lets up until that final stunning and unsettling top rope shot in the wrestling ring.
And there we have it! A nice and incredibly happy list ranking just how freaking bleak Aronfosky can get. With his new film mother! just around the corner, starring an incredible cast of Jennifer Lawerence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer, here’s hoping we get another great addition to the sad and hurtful filmography he has set up!