Subtlety may not be Darren Aronofsky's strong suit, yet his heavy-handed tendencies have served him well in such features as the harrowing addiction drama Requiem for a Dream and the heart-breaking Golden Globe winner The Wrestler. And despite the fact that his psychological thriller Black Swan features little of the flamboyant visual style that assaulted our eyes in the former nor the operatic emotions of the latter, it still succeeds on its own terms thanks to a compelling performance by Natalie Portman and a dark undercurrent of self-destruction that progressively seduces us courtesy of some supremely creepy, eerily graceful imagery.
New York City ballet dancer Nina (Portman) covets the role of the Swan Queen in a production by acclaimed theater director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The harder Nina works to win the part, however, the more overwhelmed she becomes by her suspicions that talented and ambitious new arrival Lily (Mila Kunis) is intent on stealing it away from her. As the production draws near and Nina struggles to master the duel roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan, she grows increasingly unstable to the point where she finds it difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality. Though her burgeoning friendship with unconventional dancer Lily helps Nina to jettison her perfectionist instincts and find her footing as the Black Swan, the closer she gets to perfecting the role, the further her sanity erodes until she begins to experience a bizarre and profound transformation.
With Black Swan, Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin probe the fractured psyche of a troubled ballerina who fears that she will never reach her full potential. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because Aronofsky's previous film The Wrestler hinged on much the same premise. And though both films share quite a bit in common thematically, they couldn't be further apart in tone. Whereas Mickey Rourke's elegiac performance in The Wrestler instilled that film with a pervasive sense of melancholy that gradually enveloped us as he waged a heartfelt struggle for redemption, Portman's pageantry in Black Swan leads us down an altogether different, more distanced version of psychological decline. Unlike Randy "The Ram," Nina has yet to perform her signature role, and the intense mental strain it takes her to do so may well be her undoing. Screen veteran Barbara Hershey is positively unhinged as Nina's supportive yet disturbed mother, whose presence offers a foreboding glimpse of the treacherous path that the ambitious, not-so-young dancer is headed down as her delusions grow increasingly vivid. Meanwhile, as Nina's home life begins to unravel, bitchy trash-talking amongst jealous dancers and a memorable supporting performance by Winona Ryder up the stakes on-stage as well. The resulting study in insecurity and paranoia is bewitching if not emotionally engaging -- a haunting study of obsession run amuck served with a savory side of gothic theatrics.
Thanks to the work of gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique -- who has collaborated with Aronofsky on all of his features except for The Wrestler -- Black Swan possesses an elegant air of malevolence and psychological decay that helps to compensate for the fact that the plotline feels somewhat recycled. A masterpiece by no measure, yet far from forgettable, it's a minor work elevated by a fascinating lead performance, and delivers enough serious chills to hold us transfixed once the metamorphosis begins to take hold.