Great Films You Need To See – Pi (1998)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout August with the theme of ‘outsiders, loners and losers’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi.

It’s a trait that has remained constant throughout much of his career, but the dangerous consequences of obsession were never more strikingly explored than in Darren Aronofsky’s distinctive debut.

Filmed on jarring black and white reversal film stock, the high contrast it provides to Pi (1998) is emblematic of the madness/genius see-saw its gifted young mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) rides as he becomes progressively more consumed with finding a numerical pattern that unlocks the door to life, the universe and everything.

Aronofsky's Pi adds up to an absorbing and idiosyncratic calling card for its uncompromising director and a compulsive study in the destructive power of obsession

Aronofsky’s Pi adds up to an absorbing and idiosyncratic calling card for its uncompromising director and a compulsive study in the destructive power of obsession

As Max himself states: “One – mathematics is the language of nature. Two – everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three – if you graph the numbers though any system, patterns emerge. Therefore there are patterns everywhere in nature.”

Shot through Max’s POV or in tight close up (occasionally through the disarming use of steadicam), we see the world through his repressed and paranoid perspective. He lives in a cramped apartment swallowed up by a vast computer system he’s built to reveal the pattern that exists behind the numbers of the New York Stock Exchange.

Do the math: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Do the math: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Despite keeping human contact to a bare minimum – his only acquaintance is former maths teacher Sol (Mark Margolis) – he attracts the unwanted attention of a Wall Street analysis firm keen to exploit him; and Lenny, part of a radical group of Hasidic Jews that believe Max is the vessel to reveal the 216-digit string of numbers hidden within the Torah that imparts the true name of God.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) finds the goden spiral pattern in the universe in Pi

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) finds the golden spiral pattern in the universe in Pi

The conspiracy theories, mysticism and high level maths may make for a good thriller and feed the pre-millennial angst that was rife at the time of the film’s release, but Pi is at its strongest as an unnerving psychological horror of one man’s descent into the very spiral he believes represents the pattern to end all patterns.

Clint Mansell’s aggressive electro score, in turns intriguing and nightmarish, is the perfect soundtrack to the chaos that plays out in Max’s mind, most discordantly during the increasingly debilitating headaches he experiences.

Peek-a-boo: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Peek-a-boo: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Aronofsky takes a number of visual cues from the industrial horrors of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), while the nod to Japanese cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) can be seen in Max’s search for the soul in the machine.

The director’s doffing of the cap to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling as “the patron saint of the movie” also makes sense when considering how that TV show’s penchant for the cautionary tale fits neatly alongside the numerous references Max makes to Icarus; the tragic figure from Greek mythology who ignored the warnings and flew too close to the sun.

Driller killer: Maths genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Driller killer: Maths genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Max’s obsession with the golden spiral, meanwhile, is reflected in much of the film’s imagery, from the swirl of milk in a stirred cup of coffee, to the circular journey of a paper plane; and the 360-degree movement of the camera as it coils around him.

Aronofsky’s Pi adds up to an absorbing and idiosyncratic calling card for its uncompromising director and a compulsive study in the destructive power of obsession. Do the math.

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20 comments

  1. Brittani · August 27, 2015

    Nice write up! This is the second time this week I’ve seen someone praising Pi. I will have to check it out eventually.

    • Three Rows Back · August 27, 2015

      Thank you! Who else has praised it? I’ll check out their review.

  2. Cindy Bruchman · August 27, 2015

    Nice review. I have seen recent Aronofsky films, but not his early stuff. This looks interesting and I’ve heard about it. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Three Rows Back · August 27, 2015

      Thank you Cindy. Aronofsky has always been a unique director and this is a great calling card. A real find.

  3. theipc · August 27, 2015

    I do need to see this!

  4. Paul S · August 27, 2015

    As a graduate in electronics 3.142 recurring is burned into my brain!
    Great review.

    • Three Rows Back · August 27, 2015

      Ahh, thanks buddy. That’s most kind. How many Pi digits can you remember?!

  5. ruth · August 28, 2015

    Wonderful review Mark! This is one I still need to see, though I’m rubbish with numbers generally. So long as they don’t quiz me after, ha!

    • Three Rows Back · September 3, 2015

      Thanks Ruth! You don;t need to a pop quiz after! The maths aren’t the main angle really.

  6. Pingback: August 2015 Favourites | FILM GRIMOIRE
  7. Wendell · September 7, 2015

    Just watched this for the first time, myself. I found it frustrating early, but absorbing late. A very interesting debut from a wonderful film maker.

    http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2015/09/2015-blind-spot-series-pi.html

    • Three Rows Back · September 10, 2015

      Hey mate, thanks for the comment. Read your piece; nicely done with plenty of astute points. I took to this more than yourself but hear what you’re saying. Keep up the good work.

  8. Tom · September 8, 2015

    Good stuff buddy, I am definitely curious to check out Aronofsky’s debut, it sounds like a mind bender. I was one who actually really took a shine to his Noah of a couple years ago, so I think if I could get past that one I think his other works will be my cup of tea too. Everyone seems to be polarized on that one.

    • Three Rows Back · September 10, 2015

      Hey Tom! Yeah mate; I’d most defiitely be interested in what you had to say about this. Have you seen Requiem for a Dream? Man, that’s a tough watch.

      • Tom · September 11, 2015

        I have indeed. Very painful experience, but an excellent bit of work and probably the best thing Aronofsky will ever do.

      • Three Rows Back · September 11, 2015

        Agreed. Although I absolutely adored Black Swan. I think he had another brilliant film in him.

      • Tom · September 11, 2015

        Black Swan was pretty damn good. Only seen it the once, I want to check it out again b/c I remember being pretty surprised by what I saw

  9. Victor De Leon · September 10, 2015

    never seen this, Mark. thanks for the head’s up, man!

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