American director Darren Aronofsky has long probed minds caught in the vice-like grip of obsession; from the entropic addiction of Requiem for a Dream (2000) to the compulsive performers of The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010). His own personal preoccupation was evident from provocative debut film Pi (1998), which receives a 15th Anniversary Blu-ray release this week. Far more than a mere calling-card, it’s a challenging and thought-provoking psychological thriller set within the unpredictably murky world of mathematics and the imperceptible line between genius and insanity.
Max (Sean Gullette) is a reclusive number theorist living behind a heavily locked door in a cramped apartment. He’s a paranoid, agitated man who suffers from regular nose-bleeds and excruciating headaches, but his brilliance saw him receive his doctorate at just twenty. In between taking medication, he searches for the number pattern behind life itself. By understanding the mathematical patterns of nature (through studying the stock market), he hopes to bring order to the chaos of existence. However, Max is soon strong-armed by shadowy Wall Street types and a group of Hasidic Jews, the latter looking for a number that they believe will reveal the true name of God.
It may be shrouded in philosophical ruminations on the order of the universe and the quasi-mystical properties of the famously irrational constant of the title, but Pi is very much a film about a damaged man. Aronofsky worked lengthily with now regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique to create as subjective a story as possible, placing audiences firmly within the head of the ravaged protagonist. Sharp cuts and screeching sound design accompany the grainy, high-contrast black and white visuals to create a palpable reaction to his painful episodes. The action, meanwhile, never ventures away from Max meaning that only his suspicions are available with regards to deciphering other characters’ motivations.
Over time, his perpetual struggle becomes clear; to find some kind of order in a chaotic life that had once promised so much without ever living up to its early potential. Max’s single friend, and mentor, Sol (Mark Margolis) serves as a cautionary illustration of the destructive power of such a fixation but letting go only becomes more and more difficult. Things spiral further after the discovery of a seemingly significant 216-digit number.
This is certainly not a film for all tastes; the rough visuals and abrasive audio would be enough to put many viewers off along with those who’d rather avoid a film intertwining maths and spirituality. However, rewards are there for an audience able to peer behind the stock ticker and filter out the constantly ringing telephone. Aronofsky’s Pi is a gripping thriller and tragic tale of a man desperately searching for a way to understand life, and thus live it.