By Owen Gleiberman
July 17, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
B
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Just about anyone who has ever attended a student film festival will recognize the blistering visual style and insane-in-the-brain paranoid atmosphere of [Pi] (Artisan), the first feature written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. The movie looks like the ultimate college masterpiece. It’s photographed in glaring high-contrast black and white, and nearly every shot is a febrile image of Kafka-esque dementia, the ferocity abetted by a delirious techno soundtrack.

A young man, sleepless and disheveled yet feverishly wide-awake, skulks with near-demonic purpose through the streets, alleys, and fluorescent subway tunnels of Manhattan, then returns to his apartment, a claustrophobic garret crammed with mysteriously blinking home-built computer equipment that makes it look as if Frankenstein had pitched his laboratory in a dingy studio walk-up. Just who is this human seizure? His name is Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), and he’s a mathematics junkie, a tremulous crackpot genius obsessed with uncovering the secret number system that governs…everything.

Max’s grand theory is that all experience is ultimately (if invisibly) ordered. He wants to find the elusive pattern that rules the stock market, but he’s really searching for God. He hooks up with a cabal of Hasidic Jews and a group of renegade traders, and he starts to divine mystical connections between number theory and the Torah. Mostly, he tries to snort his entire being up into his brain.

[Pi] could be a cybergeek version of Taxi Driver. The film has been shot and edited with hallucinatory finesse, and its freakazoid intensity gets to you. Aronofsky has talent, all right, but he also skitters along the surface of his ideas. In [Pi], the hero’s numbers odyssey remains teasingly abstract, and there’s something at once cramped and show-offy in the movie’s refusal to even slightly vary its atmosphere of shock-corridor burnout. Potent though it is, we’ve seen this mood before. I’d like to know if Aronofsky has a different one in him. B

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