Can you make a satisfying high-tech thriller for $60,000? You can if you're 28-year-old Darren Aronofsky, late of Harvard and the American Film Institute's directing program, and you get everyone you know to chip in a hundred bucks on the prospect that if the picture makes a profit you'll be able to pay them back $150.
That's not the only number theory at work in i, Aronofsky's haunting meditation on genius, madness, greed and religious mysticism. Not by a longshot. The hero of the piece is a tortured mathematician named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who believes that "mathematics is the language of nature" and has spent the last ten years locked in a grimy New York apartment with a vast homemade computer he calls Euclid, obsessed with the notion that beneath the roil and chaos of the stock market, a single, unified numerical pattern can explain (and predict) the whole thing.
The specter of such knowledge doesn't exactly make our poor Max happy. He's a bad-sleeping, pill-slamming wreck of a guy with six chain locks on the door, battered by visions of bloody chases through subway tunnels and of his own gooey, dismembered brain mocking him from the bathroom sink. And his paranaoia is about to deepen: When Wall Street gets wind of his research, vultures from an investment house start pursuing him for real. And members of an orthodox Jewish sect try to convince Max that the crucial 216-digit number he and Euclid have come up with is the key to deciphering ancient religious texts.
Max may be the new Pythagoras, or the late twentieth century's answer to Leonardo Da Vinci, but the world is crowding in on him.
Did we mention that Darren Aronofsy is not long out of college? This bizarre combination of calculus and Kafka sometimes feels like the ultimate melancholy student film--Phi Beta shooting Super 8. The stark black-and-white stock Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique use give it the look of a Soviet wheat-harvest movie from the 1930s, and the nightmarish gloom of Max's interior life puts you in mind of another Max--Max von Sydow--going through an especially rough winter out at Ingmar Bergman's place in the Arctic Sea. For sixty grand, Aronofsky has produced a lot of darkness.
For all its self-conscious strangeness, though, i is exceptionally smart and engaging--as befits a Harvard man, I suppose. You don't need millions of dollars to outthink the kind of mental pabulum that underlies a whiz-bang techno-thriller by, say, Michael Crichton, and that's what Aronofsky does here. i looks homemade because it is--filmed in part of a deserted lighting factory in Brooklyn. It feels primitive and personal because it is--the work of a writer-director whose only previous film served as a senior thesis up in Cambridge. But the freshness of ideas and vigor of thought in this underfunded effort give it rare authenticity.
How do madness and mysticism intersect? What's the catch with genius? The conversations Max Cohen shares with his defeated old mentor, Robeson (Mark Margolis), shed light on such issues, as do his weird encounters with Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), the leader of the Kabbalah sect. In the end, though, it is Max's struggle to crack the mathematical code before it completely cracks him that compels our interest. That, and the possibility that he may actually be able to escape the prison of numbers into which he's cast himself.
The Zorro and Godzilla crowds may not be much interested this summer in the demons that stalk Max Cohen's mind (beautifully reflected in Clint Mansell's dramatic electronic score). But as an alternative to swordplay on the parapets, or the assault of phony asteroids on the Earth, this will do nicely. "Outer space is dead," Aronofsky insists. "Inner space is the next journey."
Maybe so. But first, this talented young filmmaker is paying back everyone who believed in him with a $150 check. Simple mathematical logic.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. With Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman and Pamela Hart.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.