Black Swan ★★★½

Black Swan features a magnificently unhinged performance from Natalie Portman as its centerpiece, and it’s a wonder that the Academy opted to award her for a role that defies their typical norms, because this does not seem like the Oscars’ kinda movie at all. It’s grim, intense, and borders on horror at moments. 

Black Swan succeeds at creating an anxious atmosphere within its first few minutes, and doesn’t let up from there. Upheld by dizzying cinematography and frantic editing, its sense of constant tension is its defining feature.

But the execution of thematic content falters in comparison to the film’s technical achievements. Aronofsky and the screenwriters clearly want to highlight the disturbing competition of individualist society, the dehumanizing effect of success, and the toxicity of patriarchal power structures. They could not have been more obvious about these intentions, as they have all the subtlety of a fireworks display. Every symbol and visual metaphor in Black Swan feels overwhelmingly heavy-handed — often laughably so. Almost every scene has at least one moment where I could practically hear Aronofsky screaming, “GET IT? IT’S A METAPHOR” like a deranged Augustus Waters.

Fortunately, the final act saves the day, moving with precision and grace that the previous two-thirds lacked. Portman and the filmmakers perfectly manifest obsession and pain through striking visuals and sound design, without needing dialogue or explanation. It’s a brilliant conclusion to a fine film. Ultimately, this lies somewhere between Whiplash (which I loved) and Joker (which I despised).

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