Dir. Darren Aronofsky
(1998, R, 84 min)

Pi is either about a code that unlocks the secrets of the universe or paranoid schizophrenia. I’m not sure which, but I’m not sure one needs to know which to appreciate the film; if it’s from the point of view of a schizophrenic, he could hardly tell the difference either. Released in 1998, it was the feature directorial debut of Darren Aronofsky, and having seen most of his subsequent films it’s impossible to mistake this for anything but the work of Darren Aronofsky. As always he is drawn to obsessive characters, subjective points of view, and SnorriCams strapped to his actors to create a dizzy disorientation.

This film is about mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is as single-mindedly focused on numbers as Nina Sayers was focused on ballet in Black Swan, or Randy “the Ram” was focused on grappling in The Wrestler, or any of the addict characters were focused on drugs in Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky has developed a special interest – and a keen understanding – of personalities so driven towards one pursuit that they’ll abandon all else. Their stories are moving because what they love is also the source of their downfall.

Max is studying numbers. He believes there are patterns in all living systems, and he hopes to unlock the secrets of one of the world’s largest systems: the stock market, made up of people all over the world crunching numbers, exchanging money – a global organism. (This story takes on a whole different significance after the financial crisis.) Also working to unlock patterns is Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a Jewish theologian looking to find a hidden numerical code in the Torah. Meanwhile, Max is pursued by a mysterious woman, Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), who seems to think she can profit from his genius.

That’s the setup. Describing what happens from there is trickier. Max suffers from headaches, frequently blacks out, and as his mental state deteriorates it becomes difficult to separate reality from hallucination. The film is shot in grainy, high-contrast black-and-white by Aronofsky’s frequent cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who turns New York City into a dreamlike wasteland. The effect is claustrophobic and bleak; Aronofsky submerges us in his character’s psyche so deeply that sometimes we’re anxious to get out.

Pi feels sort of like A Beautiful Mind by way of Eraserhead, but I enjoyed this film much more than Eraserhead because it has a sense of character that David Lynch’s midnight-movie geek show decidedly lacked. Over the course of his subsequent films, Aronofsky has refined his storytelling and visual style, but as always his more outlandish creative flourishes are best when anchored by a central human interest. We’re not always sure what is happening to Max, but the director and lead actor encourage our sympathy, making him a shy, brittle man; a next-door neighbor, Devi (Samia Shoaib), is introduced to give us a sense of interpersonal connection just out of Max’s reach. Then we retreat with him back into his dilapidated hovel of wires, screens, processors, and computer printouts and think, how much better things might be for him were it not for the numbers.