Director of Mother!, Darren Aronofsky has 8 signature trademarks throughout his films. We look back at patterns in his work, including highlights like Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan and the Wrestler.
Transcript provided by Youtube:
You know you’re watching a Darren Aronofsky film if
We witness the downfall of an ambitious, obsessive protagonist.
Darren Aronofsky’s dark, gripping films focus on ambition and obsession, and the psychological
torment that results from both.
At first glance, Aronofsky’s protagonists seem disparate in nature: a mathematician,
a group of drug addicts, a surgeon, a wrestler, a ballet dancer, and a prominent biblical
Yet all of these characters strive for greatness, and often fly too close
to the sun.
The very thing they yearn to do, like wrestle or dance, leads to their breakdown.
Each film can be described as a character study, taking a deep dive into the inner psyche of
creative yet disturbed individual.
Often intelligent and creative people, they walk a fine line between inspired and insane, as
they search for meaning or purpose in their life.
This ambition is exemplified in Aronofsky’s first film, the $68,000 dollar budget Pi which
won him Best Director at Sundance in 1998.
It chronicles mathematician Max Cohen’s paranoid quest to find a single number
that will give order to the universe.
On this quest to prove that order exists, Max ends up demonstrating the opposite, as the
chaotic world drives him insane.
The low-budget debut was a precursor of what was to come as Aronofsky’s protagonists
would continue to be driven by an insatiable need for meaning.
[I’m not interested in your money. I’m looking for a way to understand our world.]
This self-destructive drive persists throughout Aronofsky’s filmography, especially in The
Wrestler and Black Swan, which many people often view as a pair of films about creativity.
Both films’ protagonists pursue a dream that we know will crush them in the end.
After a brief attempt at living a “normal life,” Randy returns to wrestling, knowing
that his heart may give out.
In the end, Randy would rather die doing what he loves, than live doing what he hates.
[You hear them? This is where I belong.]
Likewise, Nina foresees the psychological breakdown that will occur if she pursues the
role of the black swan — both in her opening dream, and in watching the company’s previous prima ballerina
But it doesn’t matter to Nina because she’s willing to give up her sanity to get what
[You can’t handle this.]
[I can’t? I’m the swan queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!]
Aronofsky observes that to reach our potential, we sometimes must destroy ourselves in the
Aronofsky’s characters often construct an elaborate fantasy to shield themselves from the horrors and
uncertainties of their real worlds.
In Requiem for a Dream, the characters suffering from addiction escape into dreams to distract
from their painful reality.
Harry fantasizes about growing old with Marion, Marion dreams of pursuing a career in fashion
design, and Sara believes she will be on TV.
[It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow alright.]
The fantasies of both Harry and his mother are symbolized by the red dress — which embodies
the ideal image they think they want for their lives.
But in reality, they’re addicted to the escape of these fantasies more than they
truly want the life they picture at the end of that pier.
Over the course of the film, the red dress transforms from a symbol of hope into a symbol
of darkness, as his character’s’ dreams collapse under the weight of their crippling
[Can you come today?]
[I’ll come. I’ll come today. You just wait for me, alright?]
Aronofsky observes that we sometimes need fantasies to continue living, or life
would be too unbearable.
Tragically, at the end, they tell themselves that everything is going to be okay, because they know it
In The Fountain, Aronofsky shows characters embracing a fantasy for a different purpose
— to deal with the unknown and achieve peace.
a book about Spanish conquistadors searching for the mythical fountain of youth.
to help herself and her husband, Tommy, cope with her eventual death from cancer.
Aronofsky has said, “Instead of facing this tragedy in terror, [Izzi] is coming to terms
with what is happening to her.”
And the film also represents the director’s own spiritual beliefs.
He’s gone on record that, “My biggest expression of what I believe is in The Fountain.”
Aronofsky, like all of us, does not know what comes after death, but he believes in the
value of these fantasies and stories we tell ourselves, to cope with the uncertain.
These stories that we invent are his religion – after all, it’s the basis of his art and
For Aronofsky, these stories or beliefs aren’t necessarily always comforting or happy.
His retelling of the Biblical Great Flood in Noah is brutal and dark, questioning the
nature of humanity and capturing the way in which the Old Testament contains violent,
disturbing material that denies us easy comfort and answers.
But even if they are this disturbing, our need for these stories and dreams is as deep
as our needs for meaning itself.
Aronofsky’s films can be seen as a cinematic parallel to the Expressionist art movement.
At the turn of the century, Expressionist painters
sought to illustrate the conflict between the surface level beauty and deeply felt,
internal turmoil and insecurity.
Aronofsky has referred to himself as an expressionist, saying, quote, “Stylistically, I try to
be an expressionist, to use the camera to push the emotion of the scene.
That’s the goal, to marry style with performance.”
Rather than with oil paints and a canvas, Aronofsky uses his expressive camera to express the
inner lives of his characters, and visualize what can’t be seen.
Aronofsky shoots his films so that we view the world through the subjective eyes of his
He achieves this with first person cinematic techniques like tracking shots, point-of-view
shots and immersive sound, giving us the impression that we are experiencing the events of the
film first-hand with them.
But he then pushes this further by showing us hallucinations and imaginations created
by their minds, leading us to question their sanity and bringing us into their fantasy worlds.
In Requiem For A Dream, we see Aronofsky’s deliberate use of expressive camera,
when he uses a split screen shot to show Harry and Marion talking to each other in bed.
The characters are physically close, next to each another, so the totally unnecessary use of
split screen is to make the viewer aware of the invisible divides that exists between these two characters.
Even at this point they’re not really seeing each other but their own dreams and illusions
brought about by their highs.
As their addiction worsens, it becomes even more clear that they both need drugs
more than each other.
Aronofsky also uses the split screen earlier in the film , to demonstrate the divide
between Harry and his mother, because of his devastating addiction.
At some points early in Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky will let a scene play out before cutting
and revealing to us that it’s an imagination.
This occurs when Harry imagines stealing a gun from a police officer, or when Marion
imagines stabbing her shrink in the hand with a fork. These scenes in to the later film, because
when Harry gets his arm amputated or when Marion is forced to prostitute herself,
we expect and want Aronofsky to cut away, telling us it’s just been a fiction. But he doesn’t.
Instead, we’re denied the addicts’ escape, and we’re forced to remain in the devastating reality
of what’s really happening to these characters.
Nina’s warped perception of reality in Black Swan forces the viewer to decide
what is and isn’t objectively happening.
And by the end, her fantasy has become the entire world we see.
Like in Black Swan, in Pi Aronofsky places the viewer firmly in the mind of the protagonist,
using surrealist imagery to show us Max’s headspace.
Whereas Nina’s hallucinations express her fear of an alternate self taking over, Max’s
This is a literal manifestation of his fear that he’s going insane; that his brain will rot,
whereas Nina’s hallucinations of another her express her fear of an alternate, destructive self taking over.
Aronofsky often shoots his characters looking into mirrors, again to demonstrate that expressionistic
conflict between external beauty and internal turmoil.
In Black Swan, Aronofsky’s expressionist tendencies are on full display as mirrors are constantly present.
A ballet dancer’s entire career and arc hinges on their external appearance.
As the film progresses, she keeps looking into mirrors to make sure her internal
unraveling doesn’t leak into her external appearance.
The mirror also reminds us of Nina’s duality, both between inner and outer selves, and the black
and white swan — and this mirror shot expresses the danger of fractured or multiple selves.
The conflict between external and internal also shows up in Requiem for a Dream.
In one scene, Tyrone stands in front of some mirrors, admiring his external appearance
before being swept away in a daydream, melancholically remembering a moment in his childhood with
This memory is triggered, in part, because his external appearance is at odds with his
On the outside, he looks in good physical shape, but on the inside, he knows that drugs have taken
hold of his body and his life, and that he has disappointed his mother.
Aronofsky illustrates that allowing our inner and outer selves to disconnect from each other
leads to misery and madness.
A key scene featuring strobe lighting often signifies the moment when the characters’
inner strife finally manifests itself externally or physically.
In Pi, the lights begin flickering in Max’s apartment before he decides to drill into
his skull — it’s the moment when the internal and the external merge.
His psychological distress can now be objectively seen, and leads him to damage his body.
Likewise, in The Wrestler, lights flash in as Randy exists the ring after a particularly
brutal match, and soon his repressed knowledge that he’s too old to
keep wrestling translates physically in a heart attack.
In Black Swan, the club scene is when Nina first outwardly expresses and acknowledges
her sexual desire.
In all of these scenes,
the strobe light expresses the character’s world-shattering realization, and it signals that their
inner distress has entered the outer-world and become physical.
Like his subjective camera, the sound design in Aronofsky’s films is especially prominent
because it tells us what the characters hear or feel, whether they’re
doing drugs, using a computer, making money, waking up, or eating breakfast.
These sounds bring us into the characters’ inner worlds, and they also give his films a noticeable rhythm,
which keeps the viewer on edge.
Aronofsky often explores extreme parent-child
dynamics in his films.
[You know, as a parent you can really understand that. If you’re too just with your child
then you’re too strict and can really mess up your child. If you’re too merciful with your child then
they don’t learn a lesson and it can go bad in another way. So being a good parent is having a good balance
of justice and mercy.]
In this way, 2017’s Mother!, with its echoes of Rosemary’s Baby, ties into Aronofsky’s other work as
throughout his films, we’ve seen parent figures who are separated from their children
by various delusions, seeing their own distorted visions of a child instead of who that child really
In Requiem for a Dream, Harry’s mother is seemingly driven to addiction and insanity by aspirations
to be on TV. But these delusions grow because of her son’s neglect.
He rarely visits her, and when he does she’s unable to face the signs that addiction has
taken over her son’s life, so she retreats into her fantasy to avoid acknowledging his absence and his addiction.
All of the outward conflicts and plot in the Black Swan can likewise arguably be interpreted as expressions
of a central parent-child conflict: Nina’s
bitter, repressive mother gave up ballet to raise her daughter, and is now obsessed with
Nina’s ballet career and trapping her in the childlike state we see Nina rebel against.
Noah portrays a father whose cruel actions in the name of God result in a falling out between him and his son.
The story seems to draw from the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, but it’s again getting at this issue of
parents who see their children through the filter of a greater desire or belief,
that has nothing to do with that child as an individual.
Aronofsky’s melodrama and psychological horror tends to
extend from a core story that’s based in these real family conflicts.
Throughout his films, Aronofsky places the viewer in the mindset of someone experiencing
psychological distress, self-doubt, and isolation.
He uses his trademark expressive imagery and subjective camera techniques to flesh-out the stories
of marginal, creative people as they experience universal struggles with darkness.
[The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let it go.]
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video