On this most noble of Pi Days (not only is today’s date 3/14, but it’s also March 2014, or 3/14), and only one week before the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in theaters, it’s only fitting to toddle on over to Netflix and check out his debut film Pi. It’s perhaps not the best choice for sunny middle-of-the-day viewing, but I sat down with Pi this morning and had a grand old time. Sure, it looks like it was shot on used coffee filters and it has a grating film-school quality that surely makes Aronofsky blush now. But for fans of the director, it’s fun to see him playing around with themes and imagery that would recur throughout his career.
Pi is probably the most successful psychological thriller about number theory and sequencing ever made. Thrown together for $60,000, it made a splash at Sundance (where Aronofsky won Best Director) and got picked up by Artisan Entertainment, and ended up making more than $3 million. This is a not-unworthy sum, and it’s a real example of what a bygone era it came out in. These days, Pi would go straight to video-on-demand, have a tiny theatrical run, and make peanuts. Upstream Color, a similarly culty experimental auteur film, pulled in only $444,000 theatrically last year.
In case you haven’t seen it, Pi follows twitchy math genius Max (played by Sean Gullette, whose one-note hyper-intensity is the most challenging aspect of the film after a while) who has a machine that spits out stock predictions. Eventually, it spits out a 216-digit number that can maybe be used to predict stock outcomes. Or maybe it’s a Kabbalah-coded version of the secret Hebrew name of God. Or maybe it’s just a random sequence of numbers that broke his weird machine.
Like so many of the paranoid thrillers of the ‘90s (Jacob's Ladder, say, or 12 Monkeys), Pi never lets you banish the thought that Max is just a crazy person. After all, he spends most of his time alone talking to himself and suffers from debilitating headaches. Plot-wise, it’s a pretty straightforward movie: Max has a magic number, which may or may not be the answer to all life’s problems/an evil inescapable curse, and a bunch of creeps want to get it from him. Also, it’s driving him crazy. Aronofsky essentially coasts for 85 minutes by letting us into the buzzing, oppressive atmosphere of Max’s brain and questioning whether or not he’s a delusional lunatic. One recurring sequence that particularly works sees Max finding a disembodied brain and poking at it—it doesn’t mean much past serving as a simple metaphor for his psychosis, but it’s really effective.
It’s one of the first signs of Aronofsky’s major skill as a director—the ability to really put you in his characters’ skins. Requiem for a Dream is also a straightforward movie in terms of plot (it honestly feels more dated than Pi), but it had such a profound impact because it seared its characters’ addictions onto the audience. The Wrestler is characterized as being apart from Aronofsky’s more patently weird body horror movies, but it’s really not—you’re as close to Randy The Ram as you can be, and you feel it every time someone puts a staple in his head.
But Black Swan is certainly Pi’s most obvious analogue, although it replaces the religious unease of Aronofsky’s debut film with Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) sexual terror. They both have an unreliable narrator, a prickly sense of being uncomfortable in your own skin, and gross body abuse (spoiler alert: at the end of Pi, Max takes a drill to his brain to stop the headaches, and seemingly succeeds, at the cost of his genius intellect). The two films would make for a great double feature if you want to take the subway home some night and feel like everyone on the train is out to get you.
The most important thing to note is that Pi is always going to have Pi Day locked down on Netflix. Sure, there are the pie-themed dramedy Waitress, or the American Pie series, but Pi is the only movie about math that we can all rally around. Netflix had better offer it up to us every 3/14, whatever the cost, simply as a public service.