Pi (1998) – Movie Review (Contains Spoilers)

Pi, the 1998 film by Darren Aronofsky, is a pretty tense film. It’s about Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) a guy with a simple dream: to discover the answers to the universe. He tries predicting the outcomes of the stock market not because he’s interested in material wealth, but rather in testing his theories: that the correct calculations of pi could lead to the ultimate understanding of the universe.

It starts out with a voice-over by Max reading a personal note, “When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six I did.” We also learns that he believes that this is the reason for his intense headaches. We then sees that he lives in a small apartment and tries to avoid human interaction as much as possible including one of his neighbors, a young woman who flirts with him. The only person he confides in is a former professor, Sol Robeson, who calls Max out on his obsession with numerology, telling him that “life isn’t just mathematics.” Max also meets a Hasidic Jew named Lenny who tells Max that the Torah may be a numeric code sent by God, “the language of God.”

Later on, when doing calculations Max’s computer suddenly crashes after spitting out a print-out containing a string of 216 digits. Max, at first, regards this as an error but then realizes that some of the predictions he made for the stock market turned out to be accurate. When he informs Sol of the 216 digits Sol tells Max to abandon his pursuits. Here the audience gets a sense that there is an underlying subtext in what Sol tries to tell Max, that he might be onto something.

While much happens it’s still a short film and one could tell that it was shot on a low budget, but it uses what it has efficiently. The grainy, black and white look serve well for the purposes of the movie. Pi is also perhaps the antithesis of movies like Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow not in terms of quality but in how it approaches its subject. Pi use quick-cuts in order to reflect the supercharged mind of Max as well as numerous close-ups to emphasize a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer. The long takes in The Weeping Meadow allowed the audience to take-in what was happening and allowed contemplation, but there is no breathing-room in a movie like Pi; there is hardly an objective distance the audience takes, but instead we’re stuck within the atmosphere of an obsessed ego.

There are also some nice details included in the film such as a shot of Max sitting in his room from the perspective of the frame holding his computer’s processor; the computer frame almost looks like the golden ratio, a math concept Max briefly limns to Lenny earlier.

However, the best thing about the film, script-wise, is the ambiguity and unreliability of Max. In the first half we’re unsure of whether Max is just insane or that he’s onto something and there are people tracing him. The ending has been the source of some debate as to whether it’s a dream, reality, or if Max is truly dead. At the end, after reciting the 216 digits he seemingly transcends. But then he wakes-up and is back to reality. He then burns a printout with the numbers and then puts a power-drill to his head for he has the numbers memorized. The next shot is him at a park bench that he sat once earlier in the film. The background seems to be obscured by a white glow, perhaps hinting that Max is really dead. A little girl that lives in his apartment building who, like before, asks him to give the answer to a math problem she already knows the answer to on her calculator. But Max, this time, doesn’t seem to know the answer and is satisfied. People have claimed that Max is still alive, this might be reason for him wearing a hat which is covering the area where he drilled a hole in his head, meaning that he recovered. However, it’s quite clear, from where he placed the drill bit and how deep it went, that he wouldn’t have survived and the ending takes place in his personal heaven where he no longer needs to calculate. There is also the possibility that the end, or the part where he kills himself, is just a dream for he’s had numerous dreams of him destroying his brain (a brain.) But this possibility is also unlikely for his other dreams were more abstract. From how that scene is framed we’re supposed to take it that he actually drilled himself. It’s an interesting end that works, for the most part, for it’s ambiguous but not too ambiguous that it annoys/frustrates the viewer. Even if the ending isn’t “real” it serves its symbolic purpose nevertheless.

Thematically, the movie is obviously about obsession, but it also could be interpreted as a commentary on transcendence through the destruction of one’s self and the aversion to reality. While the fact that Max avoids interacting with his neighbors could be read as him simply not having the patience for others as he has more important matters to attend to, one can also see that Max is contemptuous of the muckity-muck of everyday life and would much rather break away from it. His obsession with understanding the universe entirely could stem from his want to transcend the baseness of reality. I imagine many artists and geniuses have pursued their work not simply for a greater understanding but also of the possible “escape” that their work can yield, some form of immortality or transcendence. I’m probably just talking out of my ass, but this is a side to the story that I don’t think has been commented on but might be there.

Despite this being a good debut film and an interesting movie overall I’m reluctant to call it the “cinematic masterpiece” its champions claim it is. For one thing, as I mentioned before, its ambiguity was makes the movie, but it becomes more and more clear that Lenny and the other Hasidic Jews are correct and Max really does hold the key to God. One might argue that him “transcending” may all just be in his head as well, but from the way it’s all set-up I think we’re supposed to take the ending, at least until the last very last scene, at face-value. This doesn’t mean that the movie suddenly falls apart toward the end but it makes it somewhat less interesting as we’re still watching Max go mad. Despite all this it’s an intriguing film with excellent acting, especially from Sean Gullette who carries the whole thing, and one that stays in the mind even days after watching it, which is saying something.