Over the past couple of decades, Darren Aronofsky has cemented himself as one of the most distinctive directorial voices working in the medium of film. He’s continually shown a willingness to tackle dark, confronting, and sometimes mind-bending movies, but always tackling difficult things and unusual narratives in ways that are generally digestible. Aronofsky certainly does two things very well: exploring the human condition through film, and making lofty ideas feel surprisingly grounded and comprehensible.
That being said, his movies do sometimes get quite unusual, and though some filmmakers make movies that are more obscure and difficult to penetrate, there are few Aronofsky films that could conceivably be called mainstream. What follows is a ranking of his eight movies to date based on how surreal, mind-bending, and incomprehensible they can get, beginning with the films of his that are the most straightforward, and ending with those that prove harder to get a handle on.
8 ‘The Wrestler’ (2008)
The Wrestler is arguably the most straightforward of Darren Aronofsky’s movies, with its visual style being one that helps the film feel down-to-earth and remarkably grounded. It doesn’t have much by way of mind-blowing, out-of-this-world visuals, and its focus remains squarely on a single character throughout: the titular wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke in a career-best performance.
Most Aronofsky films fall into the broad “drama” genre, though usually combine such expectedly personal and human stories with other genres, or in-your-face visuals that can give a feeling of unreality. That’s not the name of the game with The Wrestler, because this is all about an aging wrestler trying to regain former glory while improving his life, which has largely fallen apart. Like many Aronofsky films, it is heavy-going and sad in parts, but it’s always comprehensible and proves easy to follow.
7 ‘The Whale’ (2022)
Joining The Wrestler as a fairly straightforward and grounded Darren Aronofsky drama is The Whale, a film best known for the Brendan Fraser performance at its center (and deservedly so). It’s hard to define it as anything but a drama, with the plot here centering on an overweight man confined to his apartment, physically and emotionally shut out from the outside world. He begins to feel as though his days are numbered, which leads to him seeking redemption in the eyes of his estranged teenage daughter.
Given almost everything takes place in a single apartment, The Whale is generally restricted physically from having anything out there or trippy regarding its visuals. The only thing that makes it technically a little less grounded than The Wrestler is its somewhat bold conclusion, which does seem to break from reality in a manner that could be read as triumphant or tragic, depending on the viewer. Other films by Aronofsky have comparable moments that occur more frequently, but with The Whale, a single surreal touch is saved for the very end, to striking effect.
6 ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (2000)
An uncompromising look at addiction and how it impacts the lives of four individuals, Requiem for a Dream is about as harrowing as dramas get. With a premise focusing on ordinary people dealing with struggles that also impact countless people in the real world, it’s hard to call it anything but a drama, beyond suggesting that it gets so nightmarish with its story at certain points (mostly near the end) that it could well be classifiable as something of a horror film.
Even if tagging it as a horror film may seem like a stretch, it’s the creative fever dream-like visuals of the film that make it feel less like it takes place entirely in reality… at least not an objective reality. It gets into the minds of its characters, showing the way the world warps around them as their addictions take control of their lives, shown in particularly horrifying detail with Ellen Burstyn’s character. Narratively, it’s still largely comprehensible, but the look and feel of Requiem for a Dream allows it to break from reality in supremely unsettling ways.
5 ‘Black Swan’ (2010)
Before 2010, some Darren Aronofsky films had contained nightmarish imagery (especially Requiem for a Dream), but Black Swan marked the first time he made something that could unequivocally be called a horror movie. It’s a movie about the dangers of trying to achieve perfection, and the obsession that comes from attempting such an impossible task. It does this while being an intense psychological drama, a horror movie, and a relentless thriller of sorts, too.
As a nightmarish blend of these genres, it works incredibly well and proves genuinely scary throughout. The imagery gets more intense as the film goes along and the protagonist’s mind becomes more fractured. Things feel like a nightmare put on screen at points, and even if the rise-and-fall narrative, at its core, is pretty easy to follow, it’s the lengths it goes to when showing the psychological state of the lead character’s mind that makes Black Swan feel bizarre and surreal.
4 ‘Noah’ (2014)
With an eclectic cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Nick Nolte as the voice of a rock monster, and Russell Crowe as the title character, Noah is undeniably one of Darren Aronofsky’s strangest films. It takes a familiar biblical story surrounding Noah and his Ark and transforms it into something comparable to The Lord of the Rings, with unusual creatures, battle sequences, and plenty of old-fashioned spectacle.
It does, however, keep enough recognizable elements from the biblical story that most familiar with Noah’s Ark won’t ever get too lost. The film has a certain level of comprehensibility, but it’s many of the bizarre creative and stylistic choices regarding certain scenes and characters that make Noah feel very weird at times. As such, it’s understandable why it’s proven to be a divisive movie.
3 ‘Mother!’ (2017)
Speaking of divisive movies: Mother! This film, starring Jennifer Lawrence, sees Darren Aronofsky making a movie that kind of feels like a cross between his two previous movies, Black Swan and Noah. It’s very much a psychological and feverish horror movie like the former, and when it comes to the latter, Mother! also serves as a biblical adaptation, presenting an exceedingly unusual and impressionistic take on various parts of the Bible, including the story of Adam and Eve and pieces of the New Testament.
Unlike Noah, it’s not a direct adaptation of anything, meaning it’s still possible to get totally lost among all the allegorical stuff. Those who want pure horror might still get swept up in the uniquely unpleasant mood Mother! creates, but it’s undeniably a wild and intentionally perplexing ride that nevertheless still stands as slightly more digestible than a couple of other Aronofsky movies.
2 ‘Pi’ (1998)
Darren Aronofsky only made a single feature film in the 1990s, but it stands as one of the decade’s most interesting low-budget releases. The name of this film is Pi, and it established the director as one willing to push boundaries and get experimental right from the get-go. The premise in Pi is that there’s a mathematician who becomes obsessed with the titular mathematical constant, and finds his life and mind unraveling the more as this obsession intensifies.
Perhaps thanks to the low-budget presentation of Pi, what seems simple becomes incredibly complex, and it ends up feeling like one of Aronofsky’s most experimental movies. It’s a hard movie to figure out, especially after only one viewing, but its atmosphere and style do ultimately prove to be absorbing, and it’s certainly a worthwhile watch for fans of the director who want to see the genesis of his distinctive directorial flair.
1 ‘The Fountain’ (2006)
The Fountain represents Darren Aronofsky at his most ambitious and perhaps his most perplexing. This is a film with an epic scope that feels as though it’s trying to be about everything, tackling the human condition itself and exploring the complexities of life through several different stories, all contained within the one movie. It does all this with a relatively brief runtime of 96 minutes, which necessitates lofty ideas getting thrown at the viewer with aggression and speed.
More than any other Aronofsky film, The Fountain feels as though it demands more than one viewing before it can be properly unpacked. It is strange, and it can be frustrating, but it’s also easy to admire, even if just for its visuals and score. It’s the most challenging entry in Aronofsky’s filmography, but also one of his most interesting, so it’s certainly worth checking out for fans of unconventional cinema.