Over the course of a nearly-20-year filmmaking career, Darren Aronofsky has made movies about deranged mathematicians, drug addicts, doctors, down-on-their-luck athletes and dancers. When it was announced in 2007 that the Brooklyn-born director would be taking on Noah — the story of a man, a flood and one very angry deity — you could hear the scratching of heads. The man who showed us Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly shooting up in Requiem for a Dream was making the first big-budget, A-lister–helmed biblical project since Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ?
For anyone who’s been paying attention to the Brooklyn-born director’s work, however, the choice was not that surprising: Aronofsky has repeatedly made films stepped in issues of faith. He may not have tackled typical Judeo-Christian subjects head-on, in the manner of recent good-book works like The Nativity Story (2006) and this year’s Son of God. But Aronofsky’s output is actually deeply religious, be it via overt quests for (and questions about) God, or through allegorical inquiries into issues of atonement and redemption. Operating both puttied of and within the mainstream Hollywood system, he’s managed to create a canon that’s as spiritual as it is diverse. After taking a look through Aronofsky’s back catalog, you start to realize: If there’s any modern moviemaker fit to direct an Old Testament tale of wrath and redemption, it’s him.
Aronofsky’s religious inclinations were apparent from the outset. His grainy, black-and-white feature debut follows a mathematician named Max (Sean Gullette) who believes that patterns govern nature — and more specifically, that he alone can decipher those patterns in the stock market. Soon, his endeavor attracts the attention of both a shady corporate outfit and a group of Hasidic Jews looking for a secret numerical code hidden in the text of the Torah. What follows is a surreal thriller rife with Aronofsky’s trademark infatuation over the conflict between the body/mind and the spirit/soul, as Max, wracked by migraines, soon finds that the closer he gets to a famed 216-digit numerical sequence, the closer he gets to madness — and, as a scholar within the movie explains, to God. Science and math do not just give us information and potential riches; it puts us that much closer to the presence of divinity.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
After that infinity-and-beyond head-trip, Aronofsky delivered an adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel about junkies that presented a portrait of addiction as a spiritual free-fall. Again, Aronofsky’s focus was on the physical toll – much of it self-inflicted – that people endure in search of transcendental happiness. Throughout the ordeals of Ellen Burstyn’s diet pill-popping widow and the movie’s trio of junkies (Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans), Requiem makes only passing references to religion — most explicitly via a friend named “Angel.” But both narratively and aesthetically (e.g., Burstyn’s red dress and and lipstick), Aronofsky recasts Selby Jr’.’s story as a chronicle of people on a misguided search for salvation that sets them on a path to Hell. The fact that the film’s climactic montage is visualized with aerial zoom-outs that suggest the characters are falling into an abyss is not coincidental. It’s a key Christian concept: There’s no atonement without sin. You have to go down before you can go up.
The Fountain (2006)
Set across three time periods – the 16th century, the present day, and the year 2500 – Aronofsky’s New-Age sci-fi opus recounts three kindred quests (by three men, all played by Hugh Jackman) to transcend death and, in the process, achieve everlasting life in love. It was his most blatantly religious film prior to Noah, notably in the contemporary tale’s narrative involving a doctor attempting to find a cure for his terminally ill wife (Rachel Weisz). Here, Aronofsky again wrestles with man’s eagerness to understand and commune with the Almighty by way of scientific reason. However, all three of his film’s segments are awash in a longing to achieve immortality by becoming one with God and the Infinite, here embodied by the Tree of Life (take that, Terrence Malick!), which all of Jackman’s characters covet. It’s a pursuit that’s awash in a spiritual themes and imagery equally indebted to Hindu, Buddhist, and Judeo-Christian traditions — and reflects the most basic tenet of faith: belief in a higher power that connects one and all.
The Wrestler (2008)
Mickey Rourke nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing the titular washed-up pro-wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a character struggling to make ends meet and trying to strike up a romance with a Mary Magdalene-ish stripper (Marisa Tomei). A gritty working-class drama complete with a theme song by Bruce Springsteen, it’s also a somewhat straightforward Christian allegory in which Randy sacrifices his body – especially in a brutal Passion-style hardcore match full of barb wire and glass-inflicted wounds – for both the entertainment of his fans and the salvation of his wayward-life soul. Flying off the top turnbuckle to deliver his signature “Ram Jam” finishing move (shades of a Jesus Christ pose) in the film’s final fade-to-black shot, he’s a man sacrificially leaping into the void for others.
Black Swan (2010)
While The Wrestler was a parable of Christ-like martyrdom and salvation, Aronofsky’s follow-up is its dark mirror image. Like Rourke’s wrestler, Natalie Portman’s ballerina Nina Sayers seeks personal and professional fulfillment through an athletic, artistic career that demands bodily suffering. Once challenged by a rival ballerina (Mila Kunis) who appears to be her evil doppelganger, Nina finds herself on a course toward not deliverance but, rather, identity-crisis insanity and damnation. In Aronofsky’s hands, Nina’s saga is one about the consequences not just of but of repression and temptation – a cautionary tale that ends on a note of tragedy. Having danced around such fascinations with giving in to higher powers and biblical falls from grace for years now, the notion that Aronofsky has finally left the metaphors at home and wholeheartedly embraced an ancient myth of a man saved by the word of God (literally) no longer seems fantastic. It almost feels like providence.