Thursday, December 9, 2010

Down The Rabbit Hole With BLACK SWAN.


- Dark, haunting, intense, disturbing, thought-provoking, and just plain %$&#'ed up, BLACK SWAN is an award-worthy tour de force from director Darren Aronofsky. Only with Aranofsky would you describe a movie as crazy as this one as a return to his comfort zone. But it's in the world of darkness and nightmares and hallucinatory psychodrama that the director seems to feel most at home. And so, after the grittiness and stark realism of The Wrestler, Aronofsky returns to the edge-of-reality surreal dreamscape he inhabited with movies like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. And once again, he creates characters, visuals, moments ... that will burn themselves inside your brain and leave you gasping. This is not the more subtle, more grounded Aronofsky of The Wrestler (although I do hope that, at some point, we get more movies from him in that style). This is the director giving us a story that's melodramatic, operatic, and entirely unsubtle. At times, it certainly walks the line between high drama and camp, and yes, there are moments that are so unsubtle so as to be funny. Black Swan occasionally even feels like a disaster waiting to happen, because it is a tightrope walk being performed by Aronofsky and his cast. And yet, the movie ultimately comes together in fairly spectacular fashion. Aronofsky, and the film's star - Natalie Portman - pull it off. They make it work. The end result is that Black Swan is one of the year's must-see films, and certainly one of its most memorable. It's a disturbing journey to the dark side, but if you can handle getting this close to the abyss, you're in for one hell of a ride.

On the surface, Black Swan is a simple story about a young ballerina, Nina, who is chosen to perform the lead role in her company's upcoming, reimagined performance of Swan Lake. Although Thomas, Nina's instructor and mentor, selects her for the part of the Swan Queen, he does so with some serious reservations. At first, he outright denies her the part. His reasoning is that Nina - a precise and measured performer - can pull off one half of the part, The White Swan, with ease. But, he worries that when she must transform into the darker, wilder Black Swan, Nina won't be able to muster up the sort of raw, seductive, untamed performance that the character's more sinister half demands. In his own direct, slightly menacing manner, Thomas pushes Nina out of her comfort zone to see what she's really capable of. When he makes a pass at her, she retaliates by viciously biting him ... and at that moment, Thomas sees that Nina just might jusy have a dark side waiting to be unleashed.

From this point on, the story depicts Nina's descent into darkness and madness. Driven harder than ever to do what it takes to be a success, Nina realizes that she has to shed the remnants of her innocent, virginal, childlike way of life in order to become The Black Swan. Nina begins to rebel against her scarily controlling mother, and forges a complicated, love/hate relationship with a new ballet student, Lily - who helps to push her even farther towards the brink. But at what price does this metamorphasis (both emotional and physical) come? Is Nina pushing herself too far? As her grip on reality begins to fade, and the line between reality and nightmare becomes less clear, we travel with Nina on this journey from light to dark, and we ourselves begin to wonder about the nature of what we're seeing on screen. What is real? What isn't? What does it all mean? Aranofsky has never been a guy who thinks small - Black Swan's story may be simple and personal on the surface, but tackles huge, grandiose themes on an almost cosmic level. In its own way, Black Swan is every bit the mind-bending epic as is The Fountain.

The central performance here from Natalie Portman as Nina is up there as possibly her career-best work. Portman adapts well to the story's over-the-top, heightened reality, and is all furrowed brows, paranoid glances, and short breaths as the stiff, sinewy Nina. However, I think the true genius of her performance is only revealed in the moments where she succumbs to her inner Black Swan. In those moments, Portman's transformation is pretty remarkable. When she is herself, that is, the White Swan, it's almost as if Portman is playing a version of her public persona as an actress - prim, proper, maybe even uptight - certainly not the most wild or expressive person in the world. Interestingly, Portman has sort of mocked this persona before - her SNL Digital Short from a few years back comes to mind. But the mirror that Black Swan holds up to real life helps to accentuate the fact that the story itself is a pretty scathing, thought-provoking commentary on fame and stardom and Hollywood - and seeing actors like Portman, along with Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder - in key roles that play with / against type, drives home the metaphor. But back to Portman for a moment - her turn as Nina is definitely award-worthy. If anything, it reminded me a bit of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (and Black Swan often takes on a similar, Lynchian, down-the-rabbit-hole vibe) - where there is that naive, innocent veneer that shockingly gives way to a darker, more unpredictable persona. Seriously - a stunningly impressive, risky, and fearless performance from Portman.

The supporting cast, as hinted at above, is also very good - and the best part is that everyone, like Portman, seems to be on the same page in terms of getting across the trippy tone that Aronofsky is going for. Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder both do a nice job. Kunis, as Lily - Nina's friend/lover/rival/stalker - is the classic youth in revolt / all-around bad influence. The role doesn't require Kunis to stretch to the extent of other actors in the film, but nonetheless I was impressed by how well the former sitcom star handled herself - easily her most impressive film role to date. Meanwhile, I've always been a fan of Ryder, and even though her screentime here is limited, she really makes the most of it. As the aging ballet star who feels she's been kicked to the curb prematurely, Ryder is scary and sympathetic all at once.

Still, there are two other supporting players who deserve special mention. One is Vincent Cassell as Thomas, the leader of Nina's ballet company. Thomas is perhaps the movie's most naturalistic character, which is itself an interesting contrast. When the film's most grounded character is a semi-sleazy French guy who has a history of preying on his young students - well, that's when you know you ain't in Kansas anymore. But Cassell does a great job in the role - and it's fun to watch the role reversal that takes place between he and Portman. At first, Nina seems out of her league when dealing with Thomas, but as Thomas continually prods her to unleash her inner Black Swan, he fails to realize the full extent of the transformation he's helping to provoke. The other actress whose role in this movie is going to haunt me for a while is Barbara Hershey as Nina's ultra-creepy mother, Erica. Hershey brings that same sort of Lynchian presence to the film, where even when she's externally calm and composed on-screen, there's so much built-up, palpable tension below the surface that it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch her. She embodies the film's unique sort of horror-movie sensibility, where certain characters and scenes are just creepy and disturbing - more so than those in most true horror films - because they are just left-of-center enough to be both real and nightmarish.

Now, there is again that fine line between creating a psychological thriller and a jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie, and occasionally Aronofsky comes a little too close to the latter. I think the movie is probably creepy enough as is without needing camera-swerve scares and other such horror movie tricks of the trade. At the same time, I think Aranofsky mostly gets the balance right. At the end of the day, there's no denying that there are campy, B-movie elements to Black Swan, and there are certainly moments of B-movie-style humor in the script. And that's cool - I think Aronofsky makes it work, and while the movie can be campy, the acting and direction easily elevate it to something far greater than a simple cult-favorite, midnight movie. There is so much artistry here - the hallucinatory direction, the sweeping musical score, the palpable sense of tension and horror - that this is clearly operating on a different level than your run-of-the-mill thriller. Even if it's with a lack of subtlety, Black Swan still manages to hit on a number of thought-provoking themes that are sure to stick with you, that will make you look at celebrity, at stardom, at the relentless pursuit of success - and the compromises made to achieve it - in a different light.

The more I think about Black Swan, the more I can't help but admire what Aronofsky and co. have done here. Perhaps that's because I can't stop thinking about the movie. It's been rolling around in my head all day, and I've been mentally replaying scenes from the film on a constant loop. This is a movie that is going to take a while to fully process, to be honest. In the Aronofsky cannon, I'd say that I didn't have the immediate, blown-away reaction that I did after seeing The Fountain, but Black Swan is also a cleaner, more coherant, and less messy film. At the same time, I found Black Swan to be a much more cohesive and well put-together movie overall than Requiem For a Dream, and the cast is probably better from top to bottom. The Wrestler might still be my overall favorite Aronofsky film, but that is also, apparently, something of an anomaly in his filmography - it's just a totally different beast than his other movies stylistically, even if it does share some common themes with the likes of Black Swan. But, in a year in which very few films have reached that next level of wow-factor, Black Swan has to be right there in the conversation regarding 2010's best. I would caution though that, again, this isn't a movie that lends itself to an immediate evaluation. I think it needs to sink in and simmer. I've been worried about both overrating and underrating it, because I'm still, to some extent, processing. But then I go back and think: how many movies can stick with you like this, can force you to analyze and review them to such an extent? Not many - and in that regard Black Swan is a rare breed of film indeed. So, with all that said, I feel comfortable in giving the movie emphatic, high praise. If nothing else, it reaffirms that Daren Aronofsky is one of the most interesting and talented directors working today. I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

My Grade: A

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