THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
It's hard to know how much to say about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan without going into spoiler mode. The film essentially tells you at the beginning what it's going to do, so it becomes less a matter of what is going to happen than one of how it is going to happen. That approach will either delight or infuriate you. Aronofsky takes his story right over the top, but don't say you weren't warned. Personally, I'm a fan of chutzpah, so I watched Black Swan in awe. It pushes the central idea as far as it can go, with an unapologetic mix of high drama and gonzo style. I think this is one of the best, most captivating movies of the year.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a dancer with the New York City Ballet. She's up for the lead in a new production of "Swan Lake." The director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), thinks she's perfect to play the White Swan, but lacks the edgy intensity to convincingly play the Black Swan. He therefore encourages her to get in touch with her dark side. Soon after, Nina finds a reason to: another dancer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), appears to be waging a passive-aggressive attempt at dislodging her from the starring role. Having seen how Thomas threw away his former star/muse, Beth (Winona Ryder), Nina knows that her grip on center stage is tenuous at best. She will have to fight to keep Lilly at bay.
That's the plot of Black Swan, but don't judge this movie by a plot description, because what happens here has little (if anything) to do with ballet or professional rivalries. All that stuff is exterior; it's the interior stuff that really grabs you. In other words, calling this a "ballet movie" is like calling Rocky a "boxing movie" or The Godfather a "mafia movie" - it undersells the richness of what's taking place below the surface. Aronofsky uses the New York City Ballet as the backdrop for a story that weaves together psychological and sexual suspense into something special…but, again, I'm not going to spoil what he has up his sleeve.
Natalie Portman has been an acclaimed actress for years now, and she kicks her career up a notch with this outstanding performance. Nina, we learn, may have some mental health issues. She occasionally hallucinates (or does she?) and has an overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who perpetually frets about the self-harm her daughter might be capable of. At the same time, Nina is extremely ambitious and hungry for the chance to be the star dancer. Portman has to show us how these things collide, then get mixed together with the insecurity that comes from having the lead role in a big production from a prestigious theater group. She must convey Nina's innocent side, in addition to her uncomfortably emerging dark side. It's a lot for one actor to take on, yet Portman creates a character who is totally authentic. It's the kind of performance an audience can get lost in, so fully does she immerse herself in Nina.
Everyone else in the cast is excellent too, but it's Portman's show. Aronofsky backs the actress up, putting her in the middle of a story that twists and turns and finds eerie places to go inside the seemingly graceful world of ballet. He creates a visual style that matches Nina's mental state, abruptly thrusting us into darkness before snapping us back out. Every ounce of paranoia, dread, and lust that Nina feels becomes palpable in the movie's dark, moody style.
Maybe you can tell by now that this is a difficult film to review. More than anything, I'm trying to give you a sense of the experience of viewing it. Black Swan really feels alive. This is not something you watch passively; it's a movie that forces you to invest yourself in it. That trait is crucial to the final act, which some will certainly decry as being too "out there." And I will beg to differ. Watch with a close eye and you will see that the story has been carefully, deliberately leading to this dramatic finale. To do what it wants to do - what it tells you at the beginning that it's going to do - there is literally nowhere else for the plot to go. I admire the fact that everyone just went for it. Black Swan, by this count, is one of the gutsiest movies I've ever seen. How often do you sense a film is not just walking the high wire but jumping up and down on it?
Great performances and atmospheric direction combine to make Black Swan a thrilling, energetic work. Don't worry, I've given away nothing. Just sit back, buckle yourself in tight, and get ready to take a seriously wild ride. If you're like me, as soon as you get off, you'll want to get right back on.
( out of four)
Black Swan is rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.