Requiem proved to be an immensely powerful and memorable movie which cemented Aronofsky’s place in the big leagues. This haunting story of three seemingly bright young things and one well-natured middle-aged lady and the terrible consequences of their escalating drug addiction is truly harrowing at times. After the great success of Requiem, Aronofsky made the critically divisive The Fountain, a sprawling multi-layered love story set across three different time periods. Here the protagonist’s obsession is simply love and the desire to protect those close to you. Many derided the movie upon release but it has since become something of a cult favourite and is in hindsight seen in a much more positive light.
It's Aronofsky’s next two movies after The Fountain which I’ve chosen for our double bill this week however, two movies which not only cemented his place in amidst the upper echelons of the Hollywood hierarchy but more importantly proved he is a truly impressive and visionary filmmaker. The first movie is a moving drama which follows a washed up and beaten down old slab of meat who sees one last shot of glory and goes for it no matter the cost to his own health. The second is a dark and disturbing psychological thriller which chronicles one young woman’s suffering for her art as she descends into madness in pursuit of perfection.
Coming of the critical mauling that he received for The Fountain, Aronofsky could easily have taken the easy way out, played it safe and simply churned out a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Instead he chose to direct a relatively low-budget movie about a subject few people cared about, professional wrestling, starring a washed up has-been who few people still rated. Mickey Rourke’s career was a shadow of its former self. His 80’s hey day of Rumblefish and 9 ½ Weeks were a distant memory and his decision to pursue an amateur boxing career had left his pretty boy looks a thing of the past. His role as Marv in Sin City had returned some credibility but he was a long way off once again being leading man material. In other words, he was the perfect person for the role of a beaten up old fighter who had fallen well out of the limelight.
Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson was one of the biggest wrestling stars of the 1980’s. Now though, with his best days behind him and with no knowledge of how to do anything else, he ekes out a living wrestling for small indie promotions in front of tiny crowds. Sleeping in a trailer and getting by on a lethal combination of drugs, both prescribed and otherwise, he cuts a lonely character down on his luck and with nobody there to support him. In an attempt to rekindle some of his former glory, Ram agrees to wrestle a 20 year reunion match against his old foe ‘The Ayatollah’ unable to resist the lure of a decent pay day and the adoration of the crowd. In the run up to the event however he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match. His doctor advises him to cut out the drugs and most importantly, to give up wrestling.
There are two women in Randy’s life; one is Marissa Tomei’s stripper with a heart Cassidy, the other his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Cassidy is seemingly the Ram’s only friend though it’s clear the old fighter sees her as something more. The right woman could perhaps set Ram straight and keep him on the right track, but we’re never sure whether Cassidfy can really be that girl. Stephanie meanwhile can barely stand her father when they first reunite. Ram neglected her dreadfully growing up, forgetting every birthday and generally never being there for her. The two get a shot at reconnecting over the course of the film but Randy seems set to screw that chance up too.
I’m trying hard to not give too much away and ruin everything for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, but I don’t feel its too much of a spoiler to say that Ram seems intent on putting his body on the line in order to do the thing he loves. Wrestling is his world and by his own admission that’s all he really knows. The devastating lengths he goes to and the pain he puts his body through is shown in unflinching detail by Aronofsky who captures the blood, sweat and beers of the professional wrestling world in all its glory.
While pro-wrestling fans will love the behind the scenes glimpses and in-ring action, this is far from simply being a run of the mill sports picture. It’s a moving story of obsession, self-destruction and regret that just happens to focus on a wrestler. Rourke proves he is still an acting force to be reckoned with thanks to his brilliantly realised performance.
The second film in our Aronofsky double feature is yet another example of a lead character suffering for their art. This time though, the director left the testosterone fuelled world of wrestling behind and focused on the far more elegant and yet every bit as demanding world of ballet.
Despite sharing several common themes as his previous movies, Black Swan still stands out amongst Aronofsky’s filmography as a truly unique piece of work. It’s a dark and unsettling psychological thriller which is gripping and disturbing in equal measure. Just as Rourke reached a career high in The Wrestler, the lead role here saw Natalie Portman put in her best performance to date in her Oscar winning role of Nina.
Nina is an aspiring ballet dancer who is handed the chance of a lifetime when brooding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) hands her the lead role in the company’s upcoming take on Swan Lake. Her youthful and naive nature is perfect for half her role as the virginal White Swan, yet she struggles to capture the sensual and confident dark side of her personality required to play the Black Swan. Thomas suggests Nina learns from her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), an outgoing and precocious newcomer to the company. As Nina grows close to Lily however and begins to embrace her darker side, her grasp on reality begins to weaken. The line between what is real and what is imaginary becomes blurred.
These hallucinogenic scenes provide Black Swan with its disconcerting tone as Nina begins to threaten her own mental well being in the pursuit of her inner Black Swan. She has dedicated her life to the art form she loves and has the physical aches and pains to show for it. Now however, as she begins to lose control over her own reflection and imagines events which may or may not have happened, her nerves are shredded to bits. Nina’s obsession to be the best and also to make he mother proud, won’t allow her to back down and fail.
Aronofsky proves himself remarkably adept at setting the audience on edge. Whether it’s a subtle touch like having Nina’s reflection stare straight ahead as she looks away, the distinctly creepy relationship she has with her mother or simply a good old fashioned bit of grotesque body horror, he knows how to unsettle the viewer. He draws brilliant performances not only from Portman but also Vincent Cassell and Mila Kunis as well. Cassell is often a menacing presence in the film and his strutting and arrogant performance is a real high point while Kunis is spot on as the sexual yin to Nina’s naïve yang.
The events of Black Swan could so easily all be in Nina’s head and so much of it is up to the viewer's own interpretation. The sense of uncertainty over what is real and fake comes to the fore at the film’s bravura climax as Nina’s grandstand performance ensures the film resonates with you long after the credits.
So there you have it, two thematically similar movies with extremely different subject matter. Both are modern classics however and represent the finest work of one of America’s brightest and inventive directors. It’s not the cheeriest double bill by any means, and you should be prepared for a fair bit of emotional investment, but you will be gripped throughout.
Total run time : 217 minutes.