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How Darren Aronofsky Explores Humanity Through Psychosis



Darren Aronofsky has always had a surrealist quality to his films. They are often disturbing, sometimes melodramatic, and always uneasy to navigate visually or narratively. His 2017 biblical climate change allegory, mother! perhaps being the embodiment of this. Yet this is in service to Aronofsky’s character work, and particularly the complexity of their humanity. Aronofsky’s films do not deal in good guys and bad guys but rather deal with layered individuals whose flaws lead them down the fragile road to psychosis. As a result, Aronofsky is a filmmaker who explores how deserving people are of compassion, even when psychosis turns them into the worst versions of themselves.

Psychosis is when people begin to lose touch with reality, often through the intensity of one’s own thoughts and feelings. It’s a terrifying prospect that has formed the basis for many of cinema’s greatest thrillers and horror movies, such as the works of Japanese filmmaker Satoshi Kon, of whom Aronofsky has previously drawn inspiration, and even entire scenes, from. In many of his films, Aronofsky has used psychosis to create drama and compelling character journeys. The destinations are often bathed in darkness, but they nonetheless make intricate statements on what it means to be human.

Requiem for a Dream is almost entirely darkness. It juggles multiple characters and their fights against addiction, namely drugs, as seen in the protagonist Harry (Jared Leto) and how his need to recreate highs eventually results in permanent limb loss. However, the parallels of addiction seen between Harry and his mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), is especially impactful. Where Harry’s story is an expected heroin addiction story, Sara starts taking weight loss pills and slowly develops psychosis the more she takes them. It is a harrowing showcase on how addiction can take many forms. The empathy we feel for the characters, especially in relation to who they were versus who they are now, highlights makes the film all the more devastating.

Addiction arguably fuels much of the drama in Aronofsky’s films. It can be seen in the form of the obsessed artist trope in Black Swan. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a chaste ballet dancer who craves the star-making lead role in an adaptation of Swan Lake. Her position is threatened all around her, namely from a chauvinist director and a rival dancer, whose exuberant coquettishness is much more fitting for the lead role. As Nina works harder and harder to obtain the perfect performance, her mind breaks under the pressure until she appears to enter a state of full delusion, unable to discern fact from fiction.

Where Nina loses her sense of reality, other characters in Aronofsky’s films convince themselves of alternative realities. The Wrestler, and even the upcoming The Whale, fall under this, with both films being the most visually restrained of Aronofsky’s career. Where Charlie’s acceptance of his imminent death and desire to see the good in his abusive daughter appear noble, they could be read as a symptom of psychosis – a lie that Charlie has told himself in order to justify his dwelling in self-loathing. Similarly, the professional wrestler Randy (Mickey Rourke), after being told that his heart cannot take the strain anymore, ultimately decides that this does not matter after he fails to reconnect with his daughter. He claims that wrestling is where he belongs, and he will fulfil it even if it kills him. Once again, his actions seem noble, even understandable, but the disregard for his own life can be seen as him also becoming detached from reality.

Safe to say that Aronofsky’s characters are rarely ever in places of mental stability. In fact, Aronofsky’s films take characters who parade ideals of strength, compassion, hard work and desire, and they break them down into their most fragile states until they are almost unrecognisable. Psychosis, and the detachment from reality that this causes, is directly responsible for these characters’ descents into mental anguish, as seen through the creative uses of cinematography, editing, and visual language that Aronofsky regularly incorporates into his films.

These descents can corrupt otherwise good intentions, as seen in Noah. A blockbuster adaptation of the biblical tale, Noah is often viewed as a righteous follower of God. Yet, in Aronofsky’s version, the righteousness of Noah (Russel Crowe) is a flaw. Broken down by his belief that humanity is doomed from its own wickedness, Noah’s drive to fulfil God’s command leads to the interpretation that he must bring about humanity’s end by letting him and his family die out. Noah’s seemingly noble desire to carry out his pious duty takes the form of a saviour complex so grand that he goes against the interests of his family. It is not dissimilar to Aronofsky’s other biblical feature, mother!, where the unnamed lead (Jennifer Lawrence) loses her mind to the swarm of people invading her house, ultimately setting the house on fire when others take advantage of her hospitality for too long.

Paired with Aronofsky’s knack for dark visual spectacles and even darker themes, these mentally fragile characters add to the overall bleakness of his movies. Yet, like the best in dark media, there is a hidden light buried underneath. For Aronofsky sees humanity as a precious thing that is beautiful when embraced, even if it can be easily corrupted. Although happy endings are seldom present in his films, his stories use the psychosis his characters undergo in order to showcase humanity as a complex neologism worthy of empathy – a collective capable of incredible highs and crippling lows.

Even though Nina eventually dies in Black Swan, having been haunted by her psychosis into self-injury, she nevertheless achieves the perfection she craves. Similarly, The Wrestler ends with a heavy implication that Randy has killed himself from the exertion of wrestling, but he nonetheless died doing the very thing he loved and was good at. Charlie’s self-loathing and delusion allows him to see and ultimately bring out the best in Ellie in The Whale. Noah’s antagonistic saviour complex reaches a point where he can no longer go through with his righteousness and ultimately learns the value in forgiveness. One could successfully debate that these are not happy endings, especially with the former two. Yet they all showcase a belief in humanity at its best, which eels oddly paradoxical to the visual horror and intense themes that Aronofsky explores.

Even when his films end on bleak notes, there is a forlorn sense of what has been lost. mother! ends with the implication that the allegorical destruction of mother’s house – and thus the planet – will happen all over again. It suggests that humanity is an amazing thing – as seen through Javier Bardem’s character and his constant awe at the people who come into the house – but if they continue to take advantage of Mother, and thus nature, then they will bring about their own ends. Requiem for a Dream remains Aronofsky’s most brutal film, even twenty years on, because of how it ends. Each character lies in bed or on a sofa, seen through overhead shots, as they are left to lie in the aftermath of their losses in their fights against addiction. Jared Leto’s Harry loses his arm from an overdose. Jennifer Connolly’s Marion literally lies among her shattered dreams, portrayed through her ripped-up drawings, as she cradles a lump of heroin. Meanwhile, Sara’s addiction to pills, brought on by a delusional belief that she was going to be on television, has caused her to be lobotomised. She is a shell of her former self.

Each film uses psychosis to some extent in order to convey these hidden beauties or devastating tolls. By becoming disconnected from reality, Nina and Randy were able to achieve their ultimate goals of perfection and remembrance, even at the cost of their own lives. Charlie and Noah reconnect with what matters, but their psychoses threaten to be their downfalls as they wallow in self-hatred and self-righteousness, respectively. These are all magnificent feats out of context, but within context, these moments of triumph are marked by the darkness that psychosis brought about on the way. Meanwhile, the psychosis seen in Requiem for a Dream leads the characters away from their own physical and mental health, resulting in catastrophic losses.

Ultimately what Aronofsky conveys with his films through psychosis is that humanity is a spectrum of powerful, even awe-inspiring potential. But that spectrum is also fragile, as it is easy to lose oneself in the pursuit of what you want – be it the perfect performance, the cleansing of humanity, redemption or even a high. Aronofsky’s films use the dark connotations that come with psychosis in order to generate empathy and explore the various dimensions that make humanity what it is. The realms that this propels the audience into is oftentimes dark, but it uncovers an appreciation for life that might not be immediately apparent within these films. That is what makes his work so fascinating and his themes so powerful. Light and darkness are coexisting substances, and few filmmakers dabble in the intricacies of both in relation to humanity better than Darren Aronofsky.

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