Why the tale of a tragic ballerina was 2010's best horror film
Let’s be honest. By and large, the films being released each week are derivative, bland and uninspiring. Only an elite few elicit the kind of profound movie-going experience that keeps viewers coming back to theaters again and again, and this immersive reaction is especially crucial in the world of horror.
Think of the most renowned horror classics of all-time, films like “The Shining,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Psycho.” The secret to their longevity lies in the way they unnerve viewers. They introduce us to a world similar to our own and then take us deeper, into the darkest recesses of human nature. And in 2010, no film accomplished this feat as well as Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”
At first glance, there’s nothing special about Aronofsky’s film. Because it chronicles the ongoing struggles of a performer past her physical peak, “Black Swan” ostensibly has more in common with the director’s previous film “The Wrestler” than with the psychological thrillers mentioned above.
Sure, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, in the best performance of her career) has a somewhat overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and faces pressure from her director (Vincent Cassel), but aside from an above-average stress level and a tendency to be a little too reserved, Nina doesn’t demonstrate any inherent darkness outright.
However, when a young ingénue (Mila Kunis) begins to threaten her career, Nina’s repressed fears and paranoia cause her to begin a descent into madness, leaving both the viewer and Nina herself questioning what’s real and what is simply her imagination.
To go into the plot in any greater detail than that would spoil the experience, for “Black Swan” is just that. It’s a film that quite literally traps you inside the mind of its main character.
Unlike franchise films such as “Saw 3D” and “Paranormal Activity 2,” there’s no external force at work here, no demon or serial killer hunting Nina. Every step of the way, the audience is asked to participate in the events onscreen, to actively decipher just what the hell is going on as Nina does, and the darker and more clouded Nina’s mind becomes, the more bizarre the events onscreen. In this respect, “Black Swan” is far more interactive than any amount of 3-D technology could render it.
Some of the most memorable horror films rely on psychologically unnerving audiences to make an impact. Even lesser known gems such as “Frailty,” “1408” and “The Machinist” are rooted in the dark corners of its lead character’s mind. They take the parts of human nature that most films desperately try to hide away and drag it out into the spotlight, kicking and screaming against its will.
“Black Swan” brilliantly accomplishes this, taking the insecurities, fears and guilt that dwell within Nina and letting them roam free and uninhibited. In essence, the film is an illustration of what happens when we let the fears and doubts that can sometimes cloud our minds and judgment TO wreak havoc on the totality of our lives and, in contrast, the danger of releasing these worries entirely and giving over to the dark side (i.e. the black swan of the film’s title).
The fact that nothing supernatural is truly at play here makes the film that much more sinister and visceral. “Black Swan” is the ultimate illustration of the phrase “I am my own worst enemy,” and despite its setting in the world of professional ballet and the specific details of Nina’s story, there’s something universally relatable at the root of “Black Swan.”
If horror films are –- at their core –- intended to force a mirror into our faces and make us confront all the parts of ourselves we’re terrified to see, then “Black Swan” is a pitch-perfect portrait of the dark side of human nature, one that succeeds on virtually every level and one which is destined to secure its place among other horror classics.
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