Rob Blackwelder


The grainy, overexposed, black and white look of "Pi," winner of the directing award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, coerces the audience into a paranoid, surrealistic perspective.

It's the same perspective Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) has of the whole world. Max is a tortured genius, a mathematical prodigy obsessed with his quest for a formula he is convinced is at the center of existence itself. Everything can be understood through mathematics, he reasons, and he wants to understand everything.

This omniscience formula -- he knows it contains 216 digits, but that's all he knows -- is omnipresent, Max discovers. He knows it can be found hiding in everything from stock prices to religious texts. But Max is already an unstable dude who has to take a handful of pills every day just to keep his brain from overloading, and his obsession with this elusive number is driving him mad. What's more, he knows it.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, "Pi" engulfs the audience in Max's world. Every line of dialogue, indeed every small action, is packed with meaning in this taxingly potent film. Aronofsky's inspired storytelling is ingenious in its infinitely complex concepts that are somehow still accessible and fascinating. This isn't a movie about a cute guy who does math, like "Good Will Hunting." This is a movie about nothing but math, and yet it's so mesmerizing that it welds you to your seat, eyes locked on the screen.

As Max verges on solving this universal mystery, he grows more delusional and more brilliant simultaneously. He gets frequent nosebleeds and often blacks out from exploding headaches, and he is driven to distraction by hounding Wall Street industrial spies looking for stock patterns and a Kabblah Jewish sect hoping to recruit him to find hidden meaning in the Torah.

An Icarus parallel Gullette brings to Max's pharmaceutically-regulated genius is fascinating. Max is convinced he is close to discovering order in chaos on a universal level, and Gullette's exhausted, possessed eyes expose all the character's vulnerability and nearly involuntary drive.

He is at the center of every scene -- in fact he spends most of the film alone in his makeshift laboratory of an apartment, littered with old computer parts knocked together into a jumble of wires, screens and keyboards. Even when other characters are on the screen -- well-meaning neighbors trying to bring him out of his shell, representatives of the sect or the brokers -- our eyes never leave his.

Aronofsky's command over the viewer in "Pi" is uncomfortable but irresistibly seductive. He overtly manipulates every impression that comes off the screen.

The mood is driven by diligently composed photography and an unrelenting techno soundtrack, used not to make the movie hip but to take you inside Max's pounding head. Even the fact it's in washed-out black and white is significant, symbolizing not only the pure nature of mathematics, but driving home the fact that there are no shades of gray in this science. A formula is either proven or disproven, a solution correct or incorrect.

"Pi" is pure, concentrated and unadorned. A Kafka-esque, cerebral, minimalist thriller, all the more amazing for being made on the cheap for $60,000.