Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib, Ajay Naidu. (1998, R, 85 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 31, 1998
Brilliant, surreal, and emotionally draining, this first feature from American Film Institute grad Aronofsky recalls such low-budget sci-fi epics as Tetsuo: The Iron Man and more traditional paranoiac suspense films (Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder in particular, but also Polanski's Rosemary's Baby) and yet manages to be a wholly original animal. Gullette plays Max Cohen, a twentysomething theoretical mathematics genius, who spends his days cloistered away in his New York City Chinatown apartment searching for a connection between the numerical construct Pi (the division of a circle's circumference by its diameter, i.e., 3.14 ad infinitum) and the stock market. Convinced that there is a deliberate correlation between the patterns inherent in mathematics and the patterns found in all other aspects of life, Max delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, barricading himself inside his tiny apartment amidst a humming warren of computer equipment and intelligence (nicknamed Euclid). A chance meeting with a Hasidic math whiz named Lenny Meyer (Shenkman) puts him in touch with a bizarre Jewish religious underground cult that seeks to reveal the true name of God via mathematical computations, while on the other end of Max's dwindling social circle, shady representatives of a monomaniacal Wall Street consortium persistently hound Max to share his discoveries or face unspoken consequences. All of this is played out against Max's frequent bouts of hallucinatory, crippling migraines, and against the better judgment of his former mentor, the aged Sol (Margolis), who realizes that caution is the better part of wisdom. The mathematics background in Pi is essentially a construct for Aronofsky to explore the limits of creativity and, finally, breakdown. Pi asks big questions of its audience, but can also be viewed as a simple (if non-simplistic) suspense film, replete with dizzying chases, heated battles, and shady underworld figures. Director of photography Matthew Libatique invests the film with a heady, disorienting black-and-white palette; as in Max's figures, there is precious little gray to be found here, and the cinematography reflects the stark ideas and shaky desperation behind Max's quest. Gullette plays Max as a closeted cipher; he's the physical manifestation of too much time spent breaking reality down into algorithmic patterns. Gangly, pale, and with a high, receding forehead, he'd be creepy enough without all the mystical, revelatory goings-on, but amid the steadily mounting chaos around him, he imparts a kind of feverish, terrifying intensity – he practically sweats barely contained anxiety. That's a good description of Aronofsky's film as well: the cinematic equivalent of a full-bore panic attack, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, and all.