Review in a Hurry: Challenged to tap into her dark side, a perfectionist ballerina (Natalie Portman) becomes increasingly lost in a waking nightmare of all her neuroses. Director Darren Aronofsky's latest genre-bender may be talked about as awards-bait, but such conversations obscure the fact that Black Swan mostly plays like a full-on horror movie, with more genuinely earned scares than recent releases which wear the genre on their sleeves.
The Bigger Picture: "Thriller" is what movies with sophisticated aspirations call themselves when they don't want to be dragged down into the perceived "horror" gutter. But make no mistake—this is not some suspense-flick in which a guy with a knife chases Natalie Portman. Rather, it's a full on mental meltdown depicted with terrifying subjectivity, comparable to Roman Polanski's Repulsion.
Numerous critics will likely also make comparisons to David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence), inasmuch as the movie deals with body imagery and the sometimes gruesome modification of same.
But this obscures the fact that it's been an Aronofsky issue from day one. From the head-drilling in Pi, the diet drugs and arm amputation in Requiem for a Dream, the steroids in The Wrestler, to the transformation of Rachel Weisz via cancer into a tree in The Fountain, every one of his films has in some way dealt with the mutilation of the body in order to attain an imagined perfection. (Which would have actually made him ideal for a Robocop remake, if one absolutely has to be done.)
Portman's Nina is an up and coming dancer who covets the lead role in her company's revisionist production of Swan Lake. She has her technique down pat, though there's also the issue of an OCD compulsion of scratching herself until she bleeds, possibly exacerbated by the demands of her hardline ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), with whom she shares a small New York flat.
Ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) doesn't make things easier—using a totally unprofessional approach to get his point across (dude has apparently never heard the words sexual and harassment together in a sentence), he makes clear that he knows Nina has the skills for the part but possibly not the passion.
Especially since the dual lead roles of white swan and black swan require both control and uninhibited emotion. She must be able, he tells her, to totally lose herself in the role.
This she does, but with terrifying results. As we, the viewers, get sucked into her reality, we wonder if fellow dancer Lilly (Mila Kunis) is trying to undermine her, or seduce her, or is a completely innocuous friend. And to what extent retiring star Beth (Winona Ryder) has it out for her...or is similarly delusional. Plus, the scars that appear on her body: Are they the result of more obsessive scratching, or an actual transformation of the flesh?
Aronofsky's portrayal of what ensues isn't meant to be taken literally, but as a representation of the fears and insecurities that accompany the perfectionism of being in the spotlight. In the process, he delivers more genuine jump-scares than any other horror sequel or remake you've seen this year.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Oscar voters may find this too scary for their tastes, while horror fans may rebel at the notion of having to watch ballet. Their loss, in both cases.