You'll want to go easy on the caffeine before seeing II ("Pi"), the debut feature of writer/director Darren Aronofsky. His tale about the attempt of math genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) to find the numbers that will explain the pattern behind everything in (and out of) nature plays at a fever pitch, and that's putting it mildly.
First of all, the (New York) Chinatown apartment where he conducts his investigations is so filled with monitors and crackling gizmos that Cohen comes across as a Jewish Dr. Frankenstein. A poor-as-a-church-mouse Jewish Dr. Frankenstein, in fact, whose money affords him only enough room for his equipment, a bed on the floor and a tiny bathroom to retreat into whenever his migraines, or whatever those seizures are, start to kick in. And the film is shot in an almost painfully high-contrast black and white, and has the grainy texture of a blowup from 16mm, and is backed by a truly throbbing techno beat, so you get Cohen's agony and ecstasy, his genius or madness, (or both), and his squalor in the most striking possible terms.
Aronofsky knows what he's doing -- torturing his audience, making us identify with his protagonist's pain. During one of Cohen's experiments, his phone begins to ring, but he's too much of a tormented genius to pick it up, so it rings on and on, producing a kind of repetitive sound syndrome that took me back to the perpetually crying baby of Eraserhead, one of Aronofsky's more apparent influences.
And when Cohen does go out into the world, he is possessed by visions, as well as (briefly, at least) by Wall Street thugs and dangerous Hasidim. The Stock Marketeers want his theory of the market; the Hasidim think that the code he's discovered is the actual name of God, lost to them ever since the Romans destroyed their temple almost 2,000 years ago.
So the stakes are high, at least in Cohen's possibly psychotic mind. At one point he applies a drill to his shaved head, to relieve the pressure of his visions. Or does he? Would he have lived to tell the tale? (To be sure, another viewer at the screening remarked on a cult of head-drillers that actually exists; and they have their own web site, to prove it.)
But for all the film's hyper-intensity, and the discomfort it provokes, you don't mind being in 's grip. Rather, you submit to its grip, because Aronofsky seems so sure of what he's about -- there's scarcely a second of doubt or waste here. You feel the ride will be worth the hysteria.
Aronofsky has triangulated his story nicely among three competing desires: Cohen's for pure knowledge, the Wall Street gang for filthy lucre and the Hasidim for knowledge of God. The characters aren't exactly shaded in (this is a high-contrast film, all right); they're nothing but the sum of their desires.
That doesn't mean they can't be engaging. When Cohen staggers into a neighborhood diner, clutching his Post and trying to make sense of the day's stock market quotes, a talkative young Hasid takes the neighboring stool and tries to engage him in banter concerning their shared religious and cultural heritage. At this point, the extremely Kafkaesque and secular Cohen is the last person in Manhattan you'd want to engage in small talk, but just when you wonder if he'll implode or explode, the Hasid tells him he's a numbers man as well, and explains to him that Hebrew is as much a system of numbers as of letters. Cohen melts (giving a powerful performance, Gullette can turn on a dime here), and his mania puts on a human face.
The film is also very tightly plotted. It consists in large part of pounding chase scenes, mostly through the horrifying-looking subway stations of Manhattan and Brooklyn, in which Cohen is on the run from either his demons or people who want something from him. (The Hasidim turn out to be a tougher gang than the Wall Streeters.)
I generally frown on movies that want us to ask whether the action is happening in the street or between the protagonist's ears, but Aronofsky had me sucked in, ready to go either way. His film rhythm certainly pounds, and he's got an eye for truly arresting images, as when Cohen continually sees, or imagines, in every subway station, a Hasid with blood dripping from his dangling hand. The naked brain he keeps coming across is a bit literal, though.
II finally isn't quite as deep as you'd like. Aronofsky can only take his characters' logic so far. But it is still the most original film about religion in recent seasons; or about poor young mathematicians, Good Will Hunting notwithstanding. Or about tortured genius, a subject we don't hear much about these days. That said, I didn't want it to last any longer than it did. I was ready to come up for air.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky. With Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Stephen Pearlman and Ben Shenkman.
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