His monsters are our monsters. They come not from myth but from the human psyche.
Two of the best horror films of the new millennium are devoid of extraterrestrials, creatures lurking in the shadows and knife-wielding boogeymen chasing unfortunate teens. They are unconventional in that they avoid most of the familiar trappings of the genre, choosing instead to focus on human fallacy as the ultimate source of terror. The two films have one other thing in common: director Darren Aronofsky, one of the best and most creative filmmakers of our era.
Requiem for a Dream (2000) deals with the horrors of drug addiction. It depicts the deteriorating lives of four people who become increasingly dependent on both legal and illegal drugs. The horror is concentrated on the impact that drugs have on those lives, and the drugs themselves become characters in the film, enticing, seducing and ultimately destroying all. It is a powerful, disturbing film, whose images haunt the viewer long after the credits roll. It is, in many ways, the quintessential anti-drug film, one which should perhaps be shown to every teen contemplating experimenting with narcotics.
The film effectively depicts the impact of drugs on a very personal level. Aronofsky makes us care for his flawed protagonists. We feel their longing for better, happier lives, their surrender to drugs as a means of attaining those lives, and the ultimate destruction that follows surrender. The viewer is both engaged (Aronovsky’s films have always contained elements of voyeurism) and horrified by what he sees. The closing sequence, which cuts from scene to scene with increasing speed, depicting the destruction of each character, leaves the viewer gasping for breath, trying to fathom the meaning and impact of the images on the screen.
Aronofsky’s most recent film, Black Swan (2010), takes a different approach. Here, horror comes not from without (drugs) but from within (the mind). The film depicts the descent into madness of a young ballet dancer (memorably played by Natalie Portman, who is certain to earn an Oscar nomination). By the devastating conclusion of the film, when the descent is complete, and the screen fades to black to the deafening music of Swan Lake, we realize that Aronofsky has been toying with our emotions, employing cinematic tricks to stir in us feelings of paranoia, confusion, dread and regret. Yet we do not care because his use of those tricks is seamless and effective. We know we are being manipulated by a cinematic master.
At the conclusion of the film, I turned to my daughter and mouthed the word: “Wow.” It accurately described my reaction to what I had just witnessed. Black Swan may or may not be the best American film of 2010 (David Fincher’s The Social Network, for example, has been given that title by many) but, with apologies to Christopher Nolan’s enigmatic Inception, it may well be the most memorable.
Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan have, in many ways, redefined the “horror” genre. Their appearance at the beginning of the new millennium bodes well for the future of American film, whose path over the coming decades will be shaped, in large part, by the intelligence and creativity of gifted filmmakers such as Aronofsky.