“Shot Through the Heart” is a new weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we discuss one of my favorite films, if not my absolute favorite – Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain.
In 2007 my friend Tony and I stumbled through the grocery video rental shop looking for something to watch. We were exhausted, we were stuffed full of burgers and fries, and we just wanted to space out with a movie and fall asleep. Flipping through through DVDs, I came across something new. It was a film I hadn’t heard of called The Fountain. I knew the performers (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) but it was the name of the director that brought us to grab that one – Darren Aronofsky. We had recently seen Pi and Requiem for a Dream, his first two films, and though neither of us had been blown away we were curious to see what he else he had. We took it home and popped it on, expecting to pass out on the couches partway through. About an hour and a half later we sat in awed silence as credits rolled. He looked over to me, a smile on his face, and asked, “What the hell did we just watch?”
The experience may have left my friend bemused but it left me profoundly shaken. I didn’t speak much for a good twenty minutes after the film ended, just staring blankly ahead and blinking back the tears that were fighting to come out. To this day I have only ever gotten that deep of a wound from one other film, mother! (also by Darren Aronofsky). I shelved this one for a few years but it never quite left me. At the time I didn’t have the comprehension of film or storytelling to talk about what I was going through, to be able to talk about why I loved it so much and what it instilled in me.
The Fountain is, simply put, the story of two people and the way they deal with the concept of death. Hugh Jackman stars as Tommy, an experimental neurosurgeon working on a very specific type of brain disease that just happens to be eating his wife, a novelist named Izzi (in a beautiful performance from Rachel Weisz). From here we are given two other stories that are woven together around the main plot: that of a conquistador named Tomas that is trying to save his queen, Isabel, from the Spanish Inquisition and that of an astronaut, Tom, who has stolen a living tree and is taking it toward the nebula Xiabalba (which, according to tradition, is the Mayan underworld) so that the destruction of the star at the center will rebirth the tree. Pseudoscience aside this is a set of pretty basic plots that weave together in very blatant ways as well as unexpected ones and even some that achieve forms of poetic coupling. They rhyme in a way that is almost iambic, with plot threads following a beat and pattern led by a score that is to die for.
This format confounded critics and audiences alike when the film hit theatres, but in the last twelve years it has begun to see more understanding from those willing to revisit it. The celebration at Mondo-Con in 2016 for the ten-year-anniversary was widely attended and considered a huge success (the attendance of composer Clint Mansell had to have helped and I’m damned pissed I couldn’t be there), which led to a series of screenings around the country that gave viewers a second chance to see this as it was originally meant to be seen. Film review sites and channels such as Birth.Movies.Death and Filmjoy have been talking about not only its importance in the scope of the director’s career but also what it means to them personally. Hell, Mikey made my eyes well up with his analysis. That’s not easy.
And let’s talk about personal interpretation. The film opens with a flaming sword swinging toward a conquistador, his final scream of rage coupled with the guardian shouting the name “Xiabalba” as he strikes. Death is coupled with a metaphysical construct from the opening scene and we then hard smash cut to the astronaut, his desperate race to save a living tree tied to that death and understanding of rebirth. These are then tied to the present day story where Tommy decides to stay in his lab and continue his experimentation instead of spending time with his wife. Acceptance of death is the one thing that all viewers seem to be able to agree on when discussing this film. All caught up? No? That’s ok, you should watch it because it won’t work otherwise.
It’s here, watching these three plots running together in the beginning, that I get a final idea of where we are and what Aronofsky is trying to do. He’s shown us a man who ran away from his country to save his queen, a man who rejects his wife in order to keep working toward saving her, and a man dragging what he loves through the stars so that he can bring it back to life. Three men, three different interpretations of this relationship, and each showing a man who is profoundly missing the point of the exercise. He isn’t savoring his final days with his wife, he’s raging against the dying of the light but in this he misses what that threshold represents – a beginning instead of an ending. This is not a story about the inevitability of death, it’s a story about how to deal with and accept that life ends and that it’s alright to feel scared or anxious even in acceptance. It’s a film that asks us to think about what each moment is worth and who it’s worth it with.
A woman embraces her fate as her husband rails against it, one going with grace and dignity into the ground and the other defiantly firing himself into the heavens. Each little moment between these two people is paralleled in both the film’s reality and its metaphors. As the conquistador finds the tree he realizes that his fate is to become one with it, to enter the ground, and we finally understand that his story is not a parallel to that of Tommy the neurosurgeon but of his wife, Izzi, as she accepts the fate in store for her. Her husband, broken and angry, creates the final chapter of her story as he weaves everything together in a form that could be literal, could be a metaphor, could even be the director stepping in to point at everything and ask, “Do you get it yet?” One finds peace in the soil and the other joyously burns in the heavens, but each accepts death at last, greeting it as a new chapter on their journey. Only in this way are they able to be together forever, fulfilling the quest that each as been on the entire time and the craziest part is that they are both right. Each is right in their assumption of acceptance, each right in how they greet their end at last. In a wonderful moment of duality we get to see that quiet peace or bombastic theatrics can both be right because life was never about the end, it was about what the characters made of the journey knowing that end was inevitable.
Having one of the best film scores of all time helps the film a lot. Clint Mansell works with such a simple group of instruments and is able to weave character into each of them. The lone cello, played alongside the conquistador that we eventually realize is Izzi, begins the film while a solitary piano ends it, representative of the finale of Tommy. “It begins here, but ends there,” is spoken from Tommy to Izzi as she points from her book to the stars, letting us know exactly how this is going to go and the audio design follows this idea. The musical cues are intertwined together and separated as necessary, keeping Tommy and Izzi separate in their own threads as the astronaut and the conquistador, but twisted together again in the present day plot as the characters collide. Even here everything is presented as a vision of this couple, showing us their internal struggles and the distance between them as they approach death in different ways.
This is my personal favorite Aronofsky film and I think it’s important because it attacks a topic that so few are are willing to at this level. Many stories talk about death, show us the threat of it or a bare acceptance of it, but so few are willing to go at it like this. The strongest track produced for the score is titled “Death is the Road to Awe” and I think that’s not only lovely but happens to also be a title that reveals the entire thematic reality if the world that Aronofsky is creating. This film is such a beautiful discussion on something that nobody wants to talk about but as someone who has spent plenty of time in the company of death it means more to me than I may ever be able to really articulate. We cannot and should not forget The Fountain because it touches on the thing that makes life so precious – the knowledge that it ends. Sooner or later it comes for all of us and that should be a motivating factor in all of our lives. There’s a reason that Aronofsky himself, on the commentary track he recorded and released online, compares the film to Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and admits that he even stole a shot from that film because it was such a profound instance of a person realizing that death isn’t something they can combat anymore so they decide to find meaning within that knowledge. So few people have had the guts to do something like this and had it turn out so beautifully, emotionally, and powerful. I turn into an emotional wreck each and every time I see this and it’s because so many instance are just so painfully powerful in the way Aronofsky portrays them. Each moment is an experience that, for me, is just hard to put into words and this one cannot fade into obscurity. If we embrace it and keep in mind the beauty and grace that a knowledge of death can bring then, just as Queen Isabel states in the film, “Together we can live forever.”