Pi is one of the stranger feature films to hit theater screens in this, or any, year. If that sounds like a recommendation to you, well, you’re no doubt in for a treat. The bastard child of a swinging affair between Eraserhead and Tetsuo, Pi smooshes reality and delusion into an indistinct porridge that resembles modern man’s psychogenically addled state of being.

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky fashioned this $20,000 tale of Maximillian (Sean Gullette), a brainy Manhattanite who appears to quite literally live inside of a computer that has overtaken his tiny apartment. Max has become obsessed with number theory, to the point where he believes that the patterns within nature’s vast systems can reveal and predict movements in the number system of the stock market. Max isn’t the only one in this nightmarish landscape who believes he’s onto something — he’s pursued by corporate types who think he may be the ultimate insider trader as well as Hassidic Jews seeking the true name of God.

In the best, lost tradition of independent filmmaking, Pi takes “low-budget” as an aesthetic, rather than something you struggle to overcome. Film grain becomes as much a part of the psychic landscape as the hallucinatory imagery that accompanies Max’s frequent migraine headaches in high-contrast monochrome glory.

Tethered to a story that’s fundamentally a thriller about a tormented “genius,” Aronofsky doesn’t let himself spiral as far out into the cinematic nether-regions as Lynch did in his first feature, and thus Pi remains merely intriguing and even playful where Eraserhead was downright mind-bending. It’s never quite clear, not even by the end of the film, whether Max is really onto something or if he’s been made profoundly dizzy by all the numbers whirling inside of his head, and I was a little disappointed by the waffling. The film is still startling, with the sort of enveloping vision that few first-timers can spare the time to develop these days, especially in a film culture that declares any undistinguished ensemble piece, no matter how redundant, a fine example of “independent” thinking.

Note: The title is actually the mathematical symbol for pi, rather than the word pi itself, but I can’t find that symbol in my HTML book. Frankly, it’s pretty late at night, and rather than puzzle over it I’m just gonna go drill a hole in my head to let the words out, and then I’m going to have a nap.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Aronofsky
From a story by Aronofsky, Sean Gulette, and Eric Watson
Cinematography by Matthew Libatique
Edited by Oren Sarch
Starring Sean Gullette
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
USA, 1998

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