"The Fountain" is Darren Aronofsky's finest work to date. He's a viciously intelligent writer/director with a distancing, calculating touch that left me disinterested in his previous productions ("Pi," and "Requiem for a Dream"), but here the filmmaker finally values the command of sensory engagement. It's like a Kubrick film with the one element the maestro could never find during his historic career: emotional availability.
To lay it down in its most bare essentials, "Fountain" is a story tackling three different time periods. Tomas (Hugh Jackman) is a 16th century Conquistador on a bloody hunt though a hidden Mayan temple to retrieve sap from the mythical Tree of Life for his queen (Rachel Weisz), who is desperate for immortality. In 2005, Tom (Jackman) is a doctor frenetically searching for the cure to cancer to save the life of his wife Izzi (Weisz), who is in the final throes of her battle with death. Five hundred years later, Tom travels through space on a quest to reach the place of tranquility that Izzi spoke fondly of, using the Tree as a device to get him to the answers he needs to rest his weary mind.
Aronofsky's previous efforts were always stirring technical achievements, but lacked the universal themes that can soften up an empty visual exercise. "Fountain" is a story of death, and how the fear of it can block our journey to serenity, prolonging our hell on earth. The Tree of Life, a fountain of youth, is cautiously used as the focal point of the script, set up as a device to investigate the mental breakdown of a man who is looking for hope in all the wrong places. It's a picture that takes off on wild ideas of morality and sacrifice, but it always returns to where it began: the heart.
Employing most of the same professionals that have followed him throughout his career, Aronofsky mounts another gorgeous production here, using mere peanuts in the funding department to dynamically visualize a millennia of anguish, discovery, and spiritual release. Using shimmering golds and intimidating blacks to color code Tom's pathway to enlightenment, "Fountain" is a feast for the eyes, embracing the director's painstaking symmetrical style while rooting the film in ethereal places of wonder to better lift the idea of afterlife mystery off the ground. Whether we are in the muck and splatter of a Mayan battle zone or the peaceful transparent bubble that spirits Tom through the heavens, the visual detail of the picture is stunning, and further enhances the thematic spelunking that Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel are often engaged in.
In performances that can only be described as exquisite, Jackman and Weisz assist their director in opening up this knotty story through their soulful and romantic interpretations of desperation and peace. Essentially playing one lost soul, Jackman foams with remarkable anguish as he performs three separate interpretations of duty, handing in career-defining work. Weisz is the face of love in "The Fountain," lending the film a flowering emotional core as Izzi finds solace in her fate, and fears her beloved husband won't be able to share her tranquility in the shadow of death.
While "Fountain" stays pretty close to the heart during the first two acts of the picture, it does gallop off into an interpretive, metaphysical opera for its final movement. Aronofsky layers on spiritual awakening and mental clarity in spectacular ways, pushing Tom through time and space as the character inches closer to his final destination. Had the filmmaker chosen to create an entire movie devoted to obscure notions of salvation, "Fountain" would've locked up and shut down. Since the picture has that passionate connection between Tom and Izzi, the audience is invested in their struggles, leaving Aronofsky with a golden ticket to take the story anywhere he wants to go. Where he chooses to go might polarize the audience, but I found it revelatory and profound in ways I never thought I would able to experience with this director.
"The Fountain" is masterful on so many unique levels, presenting a demanding filmgoing experience that should elicit a grand sense of awe on an emotional and spiritual level unlike anything you've seen this year.
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