Finally, a movie that depicts how women in a competitive environment actually feel about each other – at least I think. Black Swan is a spellbinding psychological thriller, a genre whose entrants have been sparse in recent history. Working with a fantastic cast and a first-rate script, director Darren Aronofsky has crafted a superior film about a topic that shouldn’t be all that scary: ballet. The toll, both mentally and physically, that the profession takes on its employees, however, is a different story.
Veteran ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) lives and breathes her work. And it has paid off. The director of her company’s performance of Swan Lake, Thomas (Cassel), has selected Nina to replace prima ballerina Beth (Ryder) as the Swan Queen. Nina’s mother (Hershey), a former ballerina who lives vicariously through her accomplishments, couldn’t be happier. Things take a dark turn when Lily, a hotshot dancer from San Francisco, arrives on the scene and begins to impress Thomas. Nina sees her as a direct threat to her part, and soon begins a downward mental spiral of recklessness and paranoia.
Aronofsky establishes a sense of dread from the outset. Every scene drips with uncertainty and indiscriminate motives. Is Nina truly losing her mind? Is everyone out to get her? Is it all a dream? The screenplay provides no easy answers, but spawns plenty of theories. Aronofsky delivers the shocks when we’re least expecting, especially in the form of body horror and bizarre sexual fantasies. The latter third of the film is almost unbearably intense, culminating in a finale that is sure to have opinions flying on the way out of the theater.
With this performance, Natalie Portman has established herself as one of the premiere actresses working today. Grueling in all respects, Portman creates a character that is endlessly paranoid, terrified, and looking for a way out of her introverted shell. Mila Kunis is similarly effective as the “is she evil?” Lily. Naturally beautiful and confident, she excels at personifying the free-wheeling polar opposite of Nina. Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey provide excellent supporting performances, as does an ultra-creepy Winona Ryder as a former dancer who is losing it.
Black Swan is a true suspense experience, and it’s a welcome one. We too often settle for the status quo in horror. Black Swan puts the story first and builds the suspense and horror around it. This is one of Aronofsky’s most accomplished works, and easily his most accessible film to date. With this film and The Wrestler, he has become the master of telling engaging stories about people who are willing to put their bodies on the line for our entertainment. This is a masterful piece of work, and one of the best films of 2010.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 108 Minutes
Rating: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
Theatrical Release: December 3, 2010 (Limited)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman & Andres Heinz & John J. McLaughlin.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder