Originally Written and Posted at 12/28/08 w/ Additional Edits & New Content.
Science fiction has always been a genre known for big-budget special effects and high ambitions. Then in 1998, a little-known film made for $60,000 became a cult hit that year while establishing a director who would later become one of the most exciting directors of his generation. His name is Darren Aronofsky, a Brooklyn-born director whose love for films and the mind created a movie about a math prodigy who finds himself dealing with the headaches that has affected him as a child. The movie was called Pi after the mathematical symbol that equals to 3.14 estimate. Directed by Aronofsky with his own script with story credit also going to Sean Gullette and Eric Watson. The film stars Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, and Stephen Pearlman. Pi is an eerie, suspenseful, and chilling debut from Darren Aronofksy.
Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a math prodigy who is obsessed with finding variables and numbers based on the mathematical symbol equal to the 3.14 estimate with an infinity amount of numbers. Working as a recluse with his homemade computer, Max often suffers from headaches that he's had since he was a child after staring at the sun for far too long. Rarely contacting people that includes a little girl named Jenna (Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao), a neighbor named Devi (Samia Shoaib), and an old mentor named Sol (Mark Margolis). Max prefers to work alone as he finds patterns relating to the stock market. After having encounters with a Hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman) and being pursued by a Wall Street representative named Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart). Max continues to work on his work with numbers.
Then one day, a breakthrough comes in during a crash where it spits out 216 numbers. Feeling that it's just random data, he later checks through the stock numbers from a newspaper realizing that his predictions were correct. Turning to Sol for answers, Sol suggests that Max should stop before it would make him go insane as Sol gave up his mathematic obsessions that lead him to have a stroke. Max forges ahead where a meeting with Lenny about the numbers might be a big clue to what Lenny is looking for in relation to text in the Torah that Lenny's Hasidic Jewish priests are looking for. Max decides to help Lenny but his headaches start to increase pushing him on the brink of madness. When Marcy finally contacts him, she wants to give him a chip so he can rebuild his computer to find the numbers that they needed.
During the moment he tries to predict stock patterns with the chip and computer, another breakthrough emerges as well as a terrible discovery. Even as a vein pops up in his head as Max becomes more obsessed and paranoid. After consulting with Sol, Sol suggests that Max should stop for good as it would lead him to the same troubles that Sol went through. Max ignores Sol's advice where he is encountered by Marcy and her Wall Street agents where he's saved by Lenny. Yet, Max is taken to meet the Hasidic Jewish priest Rabbi Cohen (Stephen Pearlman) who reveals what the 216 digits might mean. For Max, it's more than he bargains for as he knows what the numbers are as his mind blurs in the idea of both reality and fantasy.
The film is essentially a paranoia thriller about a math genius' obsession with number patterns and a discovery that would eventually get him in trouble. Yet, it's a film that's definitely original due to its mathematical contexts and black-and-white look that gives it a loose feel. Aronofsky's screenplay does start out slow in revealing the reclusive world that Max lives in. When the second act begins with his discovery, it becomes this suspenseful yet sci-fi thriller that's more in tune with films like The Conversation instead of a traditional sci-fi film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, it's still a sci-fi film in an unconventional sense due to its mathematical components, emphasis on numbers, and claustrophobic feel. The sense of paranoia in the script is driven by the voice-over narration of Max with dialogue that repeatedly tells the story of Max's experience in staring at the sun. It's repetition reveals the pattern in Max's mind like the numbers he's obsessed about.
Aronofsky's direction is definitely in a closed, claustrophobic style with hand-held cameras to create a looseness as if the audience is inside the head of Max Cohen. The shakiness of the camera with its spiral effect helps with the mood given Max's obsessions with spirals. Yet, the cinematic style is really an ode to the look of David Lynch's first film Eraserhead while having a low-budget feel that proves that works in its raw, grainy style. Aronofsky's approach to suspense is more about a low build-up or seeing something that's about to happen in the mind of Max. It works through its emotion and Aronofsky's direction where the result is truly magnificent with so little money put into the film.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does brilliant work with the film's black-and-white, grainy camera work. With its loose, hand-held style, Libatique's cinematography is wonderfully rough in its dirty, grimy look throughout several of the film's interior settings. With little lights in the nighttime exterior and in Max's own apartment, some of the imagery that Libatique create are beautiful including a shot of the beach at Coney Island and a dream sequence as the cinematography is definitely mystifying to watch. Editor Oren Sarch does great work with the film's swift, rhythmic editing to play up to the film's sense of suspense. Sarch's editing is fast but never to the point where it's too fast in some sequences as its cutting and transitions create a tone that is startling yet hypnotic to watch.
Production designer Matthew Maraffi does excellent work in the look of Max's apartment filled with computer equipment and such to create a claustrophobia around Max's world that is all about numbers. Sound designer Brian Emrich does fantastic work with the sound in creating suspense in the subway scenes along with the noise of computers and buzzes around Max's world along with screeches in his head. The film's score is mostly driven by electronic music from acts like Massive Attack, Autechre, and Orbital along with other styles of music supervised by Sioux Zimmerman, a former publicist for Trent Reznor and his band Nine Inch Nails. Yet, the film's score in its drum-n-bass sound with fast, kinetic beats are from former Pop Will Eat Itself vocalist Clint Mansell. Mansell's score works in its swift, paranoia-driven tone with its beats as it gave the former PWEI vocalist a new life as a film composer following the band's break-up in 1996.
The casting by Denise Fitzgerald is excellent with small appearances and performances from editor Oren Sarch as a Hasidic priest, Clint Mansell as a photographer, Lauren Fox as Sol's daughter, Joanne Gordon as Max's landlady, Ajay Naidu as Devi's boyfriend, Abraham Aronofsky (Darren's father) as a suitcase deliverer, and Stanley Herman as a man in a suit Max sees at the subway train. Stephen Pearlman is excellent as the Hasidic priest Rabbi Cohen who reveals the source of what the numbers mean only to get into a philosophical argument with Max over purity. Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao is wonderful as Jenna, a little neighbor girl who asks Max math questions while Samia Shoaib is very good as Max's attractive yet caring neighbor Devi. Pamela Hart is really good as Marcy Dawson, the sleazy Wall Street agent who only wants Max for financial reasons as she follows him everywhere he goes.
Ben Shenkman is great as Lenny, the Hasidic Jew who takes Max in to the world of Kabbalah and Jewish number theories only to put Max in danger for his people. Mark Margolis is brilliant as Sol, Max's old mentor who warns him about what Max might be in for. Margolis brings a lot of wisdom to his performance as a man now experiencing life for the first time after a stroke that was caused by his own mathematical obsessions as he pleas to Max to find a life outside of mathematics. Sean Gullette is amazing as Max Cohen, the obsessed mathematician who makes a discovery only to go mad in his discovery due to his headache. Gullette's performance is a marvel to watch as he displays a sense of paranoia and sympathy to a man driven by madness while dealing with headaches and the discovery that people want to know from him.
***Additional DVD Content Written on 11/29/10***
The 2001 Region 1 DVD for Pi released by Artisan presents the film in its original theatrical widescreen presentation of the aspect ratio of 1:66:1. Along with Dolby Surround Sound, the film features numerous special features for its DVD release. Among them are two commentary tracks. The first is from director Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky’s commentary is an engaging insight into the making of the film as well as Aronofsky revealing some of the things that happened. Notably talking about how he used some of his own personal experiences to create the character of Mark. Aronofsky also cites directors like Terry Gilliam and Sergio Leone as influences for a few ideas while revealing something that happened to him when he was shooting the scene of the brain at the subway station.
During the shooting of that scene, Aronofsky and crew were confronted by the police since Aronofsky didn’t have a permit. Yet, the police did nothing because they thought that Aronofsky and his crew were a second unit crew for Woody Allen, who was shooting a film nearby. Aronofsky talks about a lot of the mathematical elements in the film which were scripted as he remembered based on his own experiences traveling. He also talks about the cast, notably the late Stephen Pearlman who had died a week before Aronofsky did the commentary. It’s an enjoyable commentary as Aronofsky sounds relaxed and excited while reminding the viewer to watch the special features on the DVD.
The second commentary track comes from actor Sean Gullette who reflects on his experience making the film. Gullette also goes into deep about the ideas of Pi and its connection with religion along with his own character. Gullette is more relaxed and calm than Aronofsky while he also goes into detail about the migraines his character Max suffers from. Gullette reveals that since this was his first feature film as an actor, it wasn’t easy at times. Even when Aronofsky was trying to get him mad for several scenes. Gullette also talks about Mark Margolis, who was a revered veteran while revealing that Mark would often improvise in his takes. Gullette’s commentary is insightful though not as humorous as Aronofsky’s.
Four deleted scenes appear on the DVD special features. The first is a scene where Farrouhk confronts Max about the way he eyes Devi. The second is Max trying to find monitors through a small hill of broken computers. The third is Max returning to his apartment where a slinky is falling down to the stairs near his floor. The fourth and final deleted scene is a test scene where Sean Gullette is walking with a camera is shot in front of him to test the way he walks throughout. All of these scenes would feature a commentary track from Aronofsky where he revealed that they were cut largely due to pacing issues.
The eight-and-a-half minute behind the scenes montage reveals the making of the film through a colored video camera with commentary by Aronofsky and Gullette. Shot by The Thin Red Line/The New World co-editor Saar Klein for the on-set scenes, the commentary features appearances from Aronofsky’s mother and the making of the door-opening scene during Max’s migraines. Also featured was the whole cast and crew at Sundance which concluded with Aronofsky winning the Best Director Award presented to him by Paul Schrader. Two trailers appear for the DVD. The first is the theatrical trailer and the other is a homemade trailer by Aronofsky and producer Eric Watson that featured one of the deleted scenes. Another feature is a music video for Clint Mansell’s main theme for the film featuring footage of the film plus ants to the hyperactive, drum n’ bass style track.
Also in the DVD are cast and crew information for Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, and Stephen Pearlman. Notes about the numerical mythology on Pi, production notes about the film and how it was made, and a sample of the Book of Ants graphic novel written by Aronofsky. Overall, the DVD is a must-have for fans of the film as well as those interested in the work of Darren Aronofsky.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
The film premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival where it was a hit as it won Darren Aronofsky a directing award. The film was bought by Artisan as the $60,000 film grossed $3.2 million in the box office as it became a cult success and winning several film prizes. It provided Aronofsky a career where he would be attached to several projects until he decided to do an adaptation of Herbert Selby Jr.'s acclaimed novel Requiem for a Dream that was released in 2000. Pi meanwhile, became a cult film as it remains one of 1990s best debut feature films.
Pi is a truly original, suspenseful, and eerie debut feature from Darren Aronofsky and company. Featuring a superb cast led by Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, and Ben Shenkman, it's a film that is definitely complex and intelligent with stylish editing, fantastic cinematography, and Clint Mansell's intense score. Fans of low-budget, sci-fi films will enjoy the raw look of the film while mainstream audiences might be confused by its mathematical-driven plot though will enjoy its suspenseful tone. In the end, Darren Aronofsky's Pi is a spectacular debut film that warps the mind as it gives suspense a new shot in the arm.
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