Pi (1998)

For a film with the title “Pi”, there’s little pi scattered throughout. And there were also no jokes regarding pie, or any pies eaten. That speaks toward the tone that writer/director Darren Aronofsky sets throughout. There is little, if any, humor in this film, which leaves the experience feeling somewhat drab. Its hero is one who thinks in black and white terms, which makes the lack of humor make sense. The film is also black and white, adding to this type of experience.

Our lead is Max (Sean Gullette), a paranoid, self-medicating and possibly insane mathematician, who spends his days trying to figure out the mathematical pattern in everything. He believes that nature can be expressed with numbers, and that everything has a pattern. His current venture is to find out what pattern is in the stock market, I suppose just to say that he did. He doesn’t ever seem to want to do anything with his findings, instead, just wanting to figure out the mysteries of the world. He even claims that he hates materialism, so I figure that predicting the stock market would have no tangible benefit for him. Whatever, he’s a many who likes to solve things, I can understand that rationale.

But that’s about the only interesting thing about him. Apart from his unflinching determination, he’s a bland character with no real personality, who is boring to watch, boring to listen to and I got sick of him really fast. It’s a good thing he hallucinates, pops pills, and does a bunch of questionable things in order to maintain what he believes to be sanity. Otherwise, I’d have probably wanted to turn the film off, especially because the plot isn’t one that is actively engaging. At least, it isn’t for about half of the film’s runtime.

What the film does is become more of a character study about Max’s obsession, but what he’s obsessing over seems to change. The stock market becomes the number pi. Pi becomes a 216 digit number. That number becomes the true name of God. And so on. It gets tiring that he can’t just stay on one task and solve that, because it means that previous plot-lines never get closure. It’s no wonder that he never actually finishes anything — he just moves on to the next objective when something new and better comes around.

This led to me not caring about the plot, and instead found myself more interested about a boring character. If he doesn’t care about things, why should I? And then, his only personality comes from difficulties that are most likely brought on by his own idiocy. He recalls, at least three times over the course of the film, that, at the age of six, his mother told him not to stare directly into the sun. He does it anyway, and was blinded for a period of time. When he regained sight, he got headaches. This was caused by him acting like a moron, just like him continuously increasing the amount of pills he takes. (And those pills seem to be taken whenever he feels like it anyway, not when there’s a real problem that we can see.)

But despite all of these flaws, I still found myself wanting to watch Pi. Part of this reason is because I wanted to see how far Max’s obsession would take him, and the other part was because the film is less than 90 minutes, something that I was very thankful for. Extend this film much longer, and you would lose its power over the audience. It would simply become too boring to be a fun watch. But it’s entertaining enough because the pacing, after the film gets going, is slick.

It picks up quite a bit during the final 20 minutes, when everything that has happened finally culminates into a thrilling conclusion. While I still wouldn’t say that I cared about what happened, it did keep me on the edge of my seat. I think it has something to do with the soundtrack, which actually helps Pi seem more exciting than it actually is. And then the hallucinations get worse, his character degenerates farther, and you begin to question what is actually happening. And then the film ends on one of those “open to interpretation” notes, which worked well enough in a film like this.

The worst part of the film comes near its finale, when Max tries to chase something that might not be real. You know when the camera is directly in front of the actor, when it is slightly too close, and looks like it’s strapped onto their chest so that it can follow them as they move? I really don’t like that kind of shot. There’s something about it that makes me cringe, because it looks amateurish to me. It just looks terrible to me, and it’s unfortunate that it was used during this chase. This scene could have had real tension and drama, but instead ended up being the worst part of the film, just because of the type of shot used. Maybe it won’t bother other people, but I just despise it.

Pi ends up being a character study as well as a thriller. It doesn’t exactly succeed on either level though. The thriller aspect doesn’t work because you can’t care about the story, while the character study fails because the protagonist isn’t interesting or deep. But as a whole, it’s entertaining enough to not feel like a waste of time. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome, which is always a good thing. It’s not great, but Pi is a good film. It’s as simple as that. It’s better than mediocre, but not necessarily a film you need to go watch.

1 thought on “Pi (1998)”

  1. I think you missed the point of this movie. It isn’t a study of the character, its a study about the world around him. It is about perspective. Max is a mathematician, he views and believes the world around him is filled with numbers. Hence, he appears to “not care” about anything else…landlord, women, cleanliness, money, religion. Max is obsessed with his vision of the world, as are all of us. To him, making mathematical sense out of something that seems random (the stock market) is proof that mathematics is the true language of the universe, the connection between everything. The corporate women hounding Max is obsessed with her vision of the world; money, and tries to tempt Max with it. The Rabbi is obsessed with his vision of the world, and tries to tempt Max with it. The film asks the question, how do you know your perspective is correct? Do you have proof? The truth both frees and imprisons Max.

    Darren Afonofsky is a brilliant director, and makes his case here in this gritty debut. This film just oozes with great ideas and concepts and yes, I agree it isn’t the easiest movie to watch, but as an intellectual study and experimental film, it works.

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