(1998) Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette and Eric Watson; Starring: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman; Available formats: DVD
Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan, Requiem for A Dream) feature debut is a low budget psychological/science fiction thriller that manages to be engaging and visually arresting without any recognizable actors or elaborate special effects. Math review time -- don’t worry, you won’t be tested later! The title refers to the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which is commonly referred to as pi (also represented by the symbol π). 3.14 is just an approximation, however, with the digits carrying out to infinity. It’s a number that has intrigued mathematicians for centuries, with current calculations spanning 5 trillion digits (Math review ends here.)! Sadly, that’s about the extent of my mathematical knowledge, and thankfully, you won’t need to know any more to appreciate Pi.
Max Cohen (played by co-writer Sean Gullette) is a reclusive mathematician obsessed with the number pi. One of Max’s conceits is that there is an underlying order to everything in the universe, which can be discovered through numbers. He cobbles together a supercomputer in his New York City apartment, determined to unlock pi’s elusive secrets. After running an experiment that uncovers the key to accurately predicting the stock market, Max is resolute about discovering a greater truth.
Naturally, there are others out there who want to know what Max knows. He meets a Hasidic Jew, Lenny, who’s keenly interested in numbers as well. Lenny’s fascination is based in the Kabbalistic belief that numbers have a religious significance, and sees Max as a means to an end. Somewhere among pi’s endless string of digits lies a 216-digit number that could be the key to uncovering the secrets of God’s code. Max is also being pursued by a shady agent who is employed by an unnamed Wall Street or government entity. She’s prompted by Max’s deadly accurate predictions about the stock market to employ him for her own purposes. She offers to help him with his numerical explorations by providing an extremely powerful, classified computer processor. Max asserts, however, that he is not motivated by money, but a quest for a greater truth.
The high-contrast black and white cinematography works exceedingly well for this story, and is a fitting metaphor for the main character, Max, who seems to view his world entirely in that regard. Max’s belief in an elusive pattern that underlies all things implies that order supersedes chaos. Other people are either an annoyance or useful for his purposes. His only real friend is a former professor and mentor, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) who was forced to retire after he suffered a stroke. Sol identifies the pressures that Max endures while seeking an unattainable mathematical answer, and warns him that he is taking things too far. As Max continues down the path of discovering a universal cosmic pattern, he is blurring the line between being a mathematician and a numerologist. In Sol’s view, the inevitable outcome is madness.
Pi begs the question: How much is taking place in the real world and how much is in Max’s head? We’re never explicitly told what is wrong with Max, but he seems to be suffering from a form of schizophrenia or schizoid behavior. He frequently pops pills and injects himself with medication to quell the uncontrolled movement and noises in his head. We can never be certain if the incidents with the Hasidic man and the Wall Street/government agent are real or simply manifestations of his paranoia and delusions. As Pi progresses, his mental stability continues on its downward trajectory. Depending on your point of view, his unique perspective is evidence that he’s cursed (or blessed) with a vision of the universe that no one else can experience, or purely delusional. We are left with a beguiling, enigmatic puzzle with certain pieces that are purposefully missing, leaving us to provide order through our own interpretations.
In Aronofsky’s later work, such as Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, the main characters’ obsessions (e.g., drugs, wrestling) are their one true love. Numbers are Max’s drug of choice. There is no room for anyone else in his world, or activities that do not serve his obsessions. Despite the admonition of his friend Sol to follow Archimedes’ example to “take a bath” and unwind, Max is incapable of shutting his brain off or engaging in other pursuits.
In his voiceover narration, Max repeatedly recounts an incident from his childhood when he stared at the sun and almost permanently damaged his eyes. This contrasts with a scene in which Sol compares Max to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and was burned. The pursuit of knowledge can be a perilous journey, and enlightenment does not necessarily lead to fulfillment.