6. Mother! (2017)
Possibly the most challenging Darren Aronofsky release to date, Mother! is a film intent on putting you out of your comfort zone, at first placing you off balance and then violently shaking your anxieties into the forefront of your mind as it rolls and rolls towards its spectacular climax.
A film very much allegorical of humanity’s relationship to God and to the Earth, as well as the discrepancies between God’s will over the Earth and the natural needs of the planet, Mother! was a much deeper philosophical exploration of religion than Aronofsky’s earlier Noah, though arguably just as self-indulgent.
Starring Javier Bardem as a challenged poet establishing a new home with his much younger wife whom he deems too naïve to cope on her own, comparisons between the film and Aronofsky’s own (at the time of filming) fledgling relationship to his lead actress Jennifer Lawrence are easy to make, and don’t shine too fondly on the iconic filmmaker.
The result is a divisive feature in the middle of Aronofsky’s great catalogue of works, a film that is arguably his most tonally accomplished to date but may take time to settle away from the outside controversies and opinions that marred its reception.
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5. The Fountain (2006)
Just like the songs of Johnny Cash, Darren Aronofsky’s films play as if a train hurtling down a hill with no brakes, increasing their pace until one almighty explosion; a crescendo that brings a new perspective to all that has come before it and acts as the ultimate source of relief. These moments are often spiritual, the enlightenment of a film’s protagonist being the major key upon which all prior tensions are released and the idea of a new truth formed.
The Fountain is the first on this list to adopt that trope, and whilst widely divisive it is a film that truly speaks to select individuals inclined to believe in its centre-most theory of eternal love, purpose and meaning.
Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz star as star-crossed lovers across numerous timelines in this intricately told tale of other-worldly proportions, Aronofsky’s embrace of visual effects providing a stunning palette of colours and iconography that create a rich and immersive experience.
The Fountain can be seen as one of Aronofsky’s true departures from mainstream filmmaking into the poetic and metaphorical, and as such has been seen as less complete or tangible than some of the work to come on this list, but it remains an important entry into the director’s filmography nonetheless and something of a sleeper hit for those catching up on the film years later.
4. The Whale (2022)
Darren Aronofsky is a director with a tremendous ability to cast the correct actors for the correct roles, even when they’re a less-likely choice or have faded into relative obscurity. In casting Brendan Fraser in the role of a binge-eating recluse filled with a lot of self-hatred, Aronofsky forged one of his most powerful creative partnerships, the results being deeply upsetting but unflinchingly human.
For all of the existential dread and thematic undertakings regarding self-destructive personality types, Darren Aronofsky hasn’t often been lauded for his personal touch, for making cinema that is fundamentally empathetic. The Whale is just the tonic for that criticism, a touching and hearty film that speaks to the self-destruction that exists in each of us.
With a more delicate touch than in his usual fare, Aronofsky approaches the deeply upsetting content of the script through what seems like a consciously empathetic lens, Brendan Fraser’s sadly well-informed lead portrayal boosting the intimate techniques of the filmmaker to stratospheric levels. In an upsetting, “watch once, be changed, but never watch again” filmography, this is arguably its most brutally hurtful.
There are elements of The Whale that are undoubtedly reductive – some themes and characterisations are presented with broad strokes, a lot of the dialogue is expository in nature – but the universal truth that this film speaks is loud enough to engulf those pitfalls, the pain and suffering and love that exists within this film likely to be the only parts of it you’ll want to remember.