There’s a reason why Black Swan was one of the most buzzed about movies last year, and this year heading into the Oscars. What director Darren Aronofsky has managed to weave together is an impression, nightmarish thriller where not even the viewers can believe everything they see. Driven by an absolutely show-stopping performance by Natalie Portman, Black Swan is one of those movies that will catch by surprise the first time, and than continue to impress with each subsequent viewing. And yes, you may not think of it, but this is one movie you will watch again. The depth it exudes, the tension, the “did I just see something?” moments, and the pitch-perfect cast makes this a movie that is just impossible to resist.
Black Swan follows the story of Nina (Portman), a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who zealously supports her daughter’s professional ambition. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.
Based on that synopsis above, Black Swan doesn’t seem like a movie that would break $100 domestic and become such a word-of-mouth mainstream hit. This movie seems to be the type that gets a limited release, enough to scrounge up a few Oscar nominations, and then disappears as the usual big budget holiday fares rolls into the local cinema. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case here. This film absolutely took off upon limited release and went wide very fast, proving to be both a critical and commercial smash for 20th Century Fox. And, if you couldn’t already tell, with very good reason. Black Swan is a taut, absolutely harrowing thriller that will leave you gripping your arm rest and tense from head to toe. The mix of heavy drama and psychological horror meshes in a way that creates something so fresh, so new to the thriller genre. This isn’t your typical thriller, don’t get that impression for a second. This is a completely new beast.
Aronofsky, Portman and Kunis create this addictive world, one that is impossible to turn away from and is completely unpredictable. All we can do is watch as Portman’s Nina just self-destructs little by little, leading up into an utterly breathtaking climax as she becomes everything she has spent her whole life resisting. Aronofsky’s tendencies to milk the melodrama sand gives the story breathe, but it’s his subtle work that really gives it life. Watch the background during just about any scene. Make sure to watch the whole frame…try not to focus on just one part of the screen because there’s a good chance you’ll miss something in the background, and that is what Aronofsky wants. There are so many subtle things happening in the background that, as we watch Portman’s bravura performance, we actually miss quite a bit.
Portman is front and center for pretty much the entire picture and, damn, does she ever nail it. She earned that Oscar here, and I honestly can’t think of anyone else more suited for this role than her. It’s easily her best work, which is saying something given her rather impressive resume. She it just utterly fearless here, which helps so much in selling what I assume was a very difficult movie to get funding for. A psychological thriller with the backdrop of a ballet company? That doesn’t sound like instant box-office gold to me, but I’m glad Fox took a chance on it. To get back to Portman, the film is utterly focused on her character and her unflinching determination to get the spotlight role for the upcoming season. We basically see the film through her eyes, allowing us to dig deep into her psyche and see things from her perspective. Even as she starts to crumble under the pressure, we still see what she sees and, at times, it is utterly terrifying. The more she breaks, the more we see of it, the more of a disturbing, impossible-to-look-away screwjob this movie becomes.
Kunis’ work as Lily, the new dancer that Nina feels is sabotaging her, is definitely worth noting. She basically plays two roles here, what Nina sees her as and her true self, and Kunis is able to balance both of those perfectly. She leaves the audience wondering if she’s actually the cause of Nina’s meltdown, or just a victim of it.
Aronofksy crates a tense narrative for the story, distorting and warping what could just be a simple story into a multi-layered, devastating psychological thriller. He’s able to handle all the big moments and small with ease, finding a balance that keeps the movie from tipping into absurdity. There are a few moments where he’s really pushing the boundaries, and it feels like he knows it, but then he scales it back. Sure, we get a couple “cheap” scares here and there, but I don’t find them as annoying as I would in any standard horror flick…and that’s because this isn’t your standard horror movie. In context of the movie, these “cheap” scares really work as an insight into how Nina’s world (and mind) is slowly coming apart bit by bit.
If you haven’t experienced Black Swan, then I urge you to give it a spin. Not only is this film an excellent theater-going experience, but Black Swan is the type of film that is perfect for repeat viewings on home video. It absolutely holds up watch after watch, allowing the viewer to learn something new each time. As the film spins into its nightmarish finale, it’s impossible not to look away, or being truly taken aback by what’s being shown. The film manages to throw us off while, at the same time, reeling us in with a gripping finale that, I guarantee, will stun you. The directing, Portman’s acting, is just jaw-dropping. Black Swan offers a look into the hypnotic pull to be perfect, and shows us the dark, macabre side when it falls to pieces. Highly Recommended.
Fox releases Black Spawn in two disc Elite Blu-ray case with a foil reflective slipcover that allows Portman’s eerie face to pop off of it. Menus are simple and easy to navigate and…well, that’s it. The AVC encoded presentation accurately portrays the films dark and twisted nature with a very moody color palette covering the screen from start to finish. The occasional rays of sunlight almost look sickly at times and overall it’s a very jarring picture to watch—both in terms of content and the visuals. Amidst all that is an incredible amount of detail on faces, clothing, skin, buildings…pretty much any surface or texture you can think of is accurately represented here in impeccable detail. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is pretty quiet in the surrounds, but delivers all of the dialogue out of the front channels with extreme clarity. It’s a very violent film and the audio represents that with explicit detail; while you shouldn’t expect a powerhouse mix, it is nonetheless one that is incredibly entertaining.
• Metamorphosis: A Three-Part Series – A behind the scenes look at the filmmaking process from Darren Aronofsky’s visionary directing, to the physically-demanding acting, to the stunning special effects.
• Behind the Curtain – An inside look at the film’s costume and production design.
• Ten Years in the Making – Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky discuss their creative journey, from “preparing for the role” to “dancing with the camera.”
• Cast Profiles – Roles of a Lifetime – Presented by Fox Movie Channel, the stars reflect on the their challenging and rewarding characters
There isn’t a terribly large amount of extras here to watch, though the “Metamorphosis” is a great piece simply because of the in-depth nature of it. It’s under an hour long (and, in fact, when totaling up all extras, there’s barely over an hour of extras), but it’s a very entertaining piece nonetheless. I would’ve loved a commentary as well, but it’s a suitable replacement for one I suppose.
Overall a disc that’s Recommended; while there isn’t a ton of extra material, there’s still some fun stuff here to watch and the film itself, as crazy as it is at times, is still one that should be seen at least once…even if you end up passing it along to someone immediately after.
Black Swan is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Film review by James Harvey
Blu-ray review by Zach Demeter