Reviewed Aug 05, 2012
Matt DeGroot’s review:
My original review from 2010 still stands. An impeccable movie.
It goes without saying that movies have the power to affect us in a number of ways. A comedy can cheer us up by making us laugh. A good drama can make us empathize and feel sorrow. And a musical can make us want to sing and dance down the streets in our own life. Movies can make us scared, angry, or put us at ease but I never thought I’d see the day where a movie makes me legitimately feel insane. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that day has arrived and the culprit is Black Swan, a masterful descent into madness that I will not soon forget.
Director Darren Aronofsky has taken us to some dark places in the past with films like Requiem For a Dream and The Wrestler but never before has he taken us so perfectly and terrifyingly into the mind of a character who is just plain bugnuts crazy. Obsession is not a new trait among fascinating cinematic characters but it has perhaps never been more interesting or twisted as in the case of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). On the surface, Nina is the most frigid, dull, and socially awkward person you’d ever be likely to meet. She has devoted her entire life to the ballet in such a way that she actually skipped normal adolescence and missed out on all of the important things that most human beings learn and experience on their road to adulthood. Nina has none of those and is effectively a child as a result.
When the autocratic director of her ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), summarily dismisses their aging star (Winona Ryder), Nina begins the process of auditioning to replace her in the leading role of their upcoming production of Swan Lake. To properly take on this role of The Swan Queen though she must be able to take on two personas – one, which comes effortlessly to her, is the White Swan who is beautiful, fragile, and elegant while the other is the Black Swan who epitomizes everything that Nina is not – seductive, impulsive, and free. Thomas surprisingly and reluctantly casts Nina in the role in hopes that he can help her find the Black Swan inside of herself and pull of a performance that is nothing less than perfection.
Thomas has a reputation for sleeping with his stars and the rest of the company naturally assumes that Nina gave up a few favors for the role, but this never actually happens. Lord knows he makes a few attempts but as the film goes on and his frustration with Nina’s inability to master the Black Swan character grows, it becomes clear that he isn’t turned on by her at all and that he maybe even regrets his casting choice. Nina’s growing insecurity mixed with the arrival Lily (Mila Kunis), a vivacious new dancer who is Nina’s complete opposite in the personality department, sets in motion a downward spiral of emotions and experiences all done in the name of desired perfection and paranoia.
With Lily’s help, Nina begins to experience everything in life that has thus far been out of her orbit. Sex, drugs, skirting responsibility, and rebelling against her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) all become important components in her quest to find the Black Swan inside her. And as these elements grow, a mysterious scar on her back and spontaneous bleeding elsewhere on her body point to a transformation with something darker attempting to break out. As these scenes progress the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur until, like Nina, we have no concept of what is real and what isn’t. I cannot wait to rewatch the film and become more conscious of when things started to disintegrate for me as a viewer, but I can say for certainty that the last thirty minutes or so was an uninhibited descent into the unknown. We are in completely and perfectly in Nina’s head and believe me when I say that it is a disturbing, confounding, and utterly haunting ride.
As Nina, Natalie Portman completely destroys any notions that we may have previously had about her acting chops. She absolutely kills every frame of this movie that she is in and it is stunning to behold. Not only did she go to some really dark places for this role, but she managed to take us with her and for that, she deserves every accolade at our disposal.
Portman is aided in this career-defining role with brilliant work from Cassel, Ryder, and Hershey but it is Kunis who shocks the most among the supporting players for her delicious turn as Lily. Who would have ever thought that the obnoxious girl from That 70s Show would ever pull off a serious dramatic role in a movie like this? I sure didn’t but I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant surprise.
It also goes without saying that this is Aronofsky’s greatest work to date. By bringing the film to an overdramatized level that could best be described as operatic he somehow still keeps everything grounded with the characters despite the intentionally bombastic music and theatrical lighting. The film looks gritty and beautiful all at once and his attention to detail is seemingly beyond compare. His emphasis on simple things like the trimming of fingernails is so visceral that I may never again clip my nails without thinking about Nina and this movie. And don’t even get me started on hangnails. This movie has made them worse in my mind than they ever were before and that’s really saying something. You’ll know what I mean once you see it.
In short, Black Swan is a masterpiece that I cannot wait to revisit. The wealth of imagery and emotion put on the screen is so vast thanks to Aronofsky’s stunning direction, Portman’s brilliant performance, and extraordinary use of lighting, music, and editing. This will likely not play well in middle America or with those who like their stories spoon-fed with explanations, but this is one of the great artworks of 2010 and like Nina’s debut performance as the Swan Queen, it is perfection.