Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Black Swan.”
The Movie: “Black Swan”
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A committed dancer struggles to maintain her sanity after winning the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 85 percent
Brown: Well, we (REDACTED) with our heads last week with the ill-conceived “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie. So why not do it for a second week in a row?
Only this time, instead of our brains being melted by bad, ‘70s cocaine-fueled decision making, why not go with a director that already screwed with us once before on the JOE-DOWN.
Enter: Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”
And each time at the ballet, I’m disappointed. I’m still waiting for the bear in the little car.
I didn’t know much about “Black Swan” before this viewing, but knowing Aronofsky and his penchant for giving Froemming and I anxiety (seeing that “Mother!” actually creeped us out during Halloween Month), I was expecting much the same here.
And… yeah, this man’s imagery weirds me out yet again.
Froemming, give us your initial take before my mother throws my cake in the garbage.
Froemming: I found this to be a motivating movie with a very positive message: Follow your dreams to perfection and you will attain it. And our hero does, despite some setbacks we see in her career as a professional ballet dancer. In the end, she achieves the goal she set out to do at the start of the movie, with a breathtaking rendition of “Swan Lake.” Not since “It’s A Wonderful Life” have I been satisfied with such a happy ending in a movie.
Also, how is it we have only done one Shaq movie and are on our third ballet movie? That doesn’t seem right.
Anyway Brown, as I itch this rash on my back, why don’t you kick this off?
Brown: We open up with this dream sequence where Nina (Portman) is ballet dancing. She’s in all white and she’s being stalked by what looks like Val Kilmer’s Birdman. That, or Bruce Campbell in a bird suit. I’m willing to buy either one.
Anyways, Nina performs with a New York City ballet company and their next show will be the classic “Swan Lake.” But, as Thomas, the director describes it, it’ll be “visceral and real.”
Visceral and real… those are words movie execs throw around for shitty remakes. So, my hopes weren’t high.
The lead ballerina of the company, Beth (played by one of my crushes, Winona Ryder), is being forced into retirement, so the lead is up for grabs. And after being stuck in the background for years, Nina is hoping to win the dual role of the white swan/black swan.
Froemming: We also get a chilling glimpse into her home life, with an overbearing mother with some mental issues. It was here I realized this movie was pretty much ripped off by “Joker.” Both lead characters have a troubled home life. Both have some mental issues which make them unreliable narrators. Both actors (Portman and Phoenix) dropped to grotesquely skinny weights for these roles (though I only recall Phoenix being praised for that, because Hollywood is a toxic cesspool that probably thinks Portman is at an ideal weight in this).
Only this movie came first and is not based on a comic book character. Thank God.
Anyway, at home we get some gross feet scenes, which I imagine made Tarantino very happy in the theater. Just seeing what Nina has to do to get her feet in those tiny shoes nearly made me vomit. Looked like she was breaking her toes.
Also, her diet is grapefruit and a hard boiled egg. Not only is that not healthy, I imagine she has pretty awful breath as well.
Brown: Yeah, there’s some definite “Mommie Dearest” vibes in this one, which we’ll get into later.
So the two swan characters embody different things. The white swan is innocent and virginal, like Thomas describes because EVERYTHING about this man is geared towards sex. And the black swan is uninhibited and dark. Nina absolutely embodies the white swan with her meek mannerism and flawless, technical dancing. If they were just casting a white swan, she’d be the pick, no question. However, she fails to embody the bold and raw performance that Thomas wants for the black swan, so it looks as though Nina won’t get the lead role.
Until he gets all Harvey Weinstein and throws himself at Nina during a private conversation. While he plants a deep kiss, Nina bites Thomas’ lip, which somehow makes him think that there’s an untapped energy to Nina that will be perfect for the role.
Nina, only after pulling a Larry David-like fake out on the presumed lead ballerina, is the lead of “Swan Lake.”
How does she celebrate? By *checks notes* having her mom threaten to throw out cake because Nina doesn’t want any because her stomach feels sick.
The mom overreacts more than black suit Spider-Man chasing The Shocker.
Froemming: Well, Nina is a little jarred by things. First, someone wrote “WHORE” on the bathroom mirror while she was in a stall after finding out she got the part. Then, on a subway, she sees a doppelganger of herself walk by, which while creepy, will never top Lynch’s doppelganger creepiness:
She is also paranoid because Jackie found her way out of Wisconsin and is now a dancer in New York.
Lily is the opposite of Nina. She has no concerns, she can play the black swan perfectly. She embodies what that role needs, though she does not have the discipline for the white swan. So, we get a lot of dualism in this movie. Ying/yang, Lennon/McCartney, Van Damme/sobriety. You get the drill.
Brown: Whether it was gonna be Nina or the other nameless woman who Thomas had picked before, why exactly is Lily here? They flew her out from San Francisco to be a background dancer? That seems like a power move with a lead in mind, not something you ship someone across the country for.
Froemming: Look, maybe he was trying to break both of them, like when the gang broke Dennis and Dee?
Brown: And even outside of the dance studio, Lily is the complete opposite of Nina. She *checks notes* keeps an extra pair of panties in her purse because…?
During a gala to celebrate this season’s slew of shows, Nina is announced as the lead of “Swan Lake” while Beth is … not handling retirement well.
When Nina goes to talk to Beth, she pretty much goes full Lucielle Bluth by getting super drunk and berating Nina.
… I think we can determine who whote “WHORE” all over the bathroom mirror.
Froemming: Beth is a real Sidler!
Brown: So yeah, as someone who also has high anxiety like Nina, this is shaping up to be a rather nerve-wracking time in what should be a personal highlight. Add to that a pervy director who *checks notes* gives Nina the homework assignment of going home and masturbating.
… This man should be fired.
Froemming: Yeah, then we get this awkward masturbation scene with Nina and she realizes her mom is also in the room…
Brown: Yeah, I think even Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates thought that was awkward.
Froemming: Well, after that gala where I also assume Selena Kyle told Bruce Wayne about a storm coming to Gotham, we find out Beth was hit by a car. And Thomas chalks it up to a suicide attempt, becuase he is a monster like Weinstein. Hey, maybe she was just accidentally hit by a car, bud. It happens in cities like New York with insane traffic 24-7.
Brown: When Nina goes by Beth’s hospital room, this is a good time to mention that this movie enjoys itself some body horror which, as Froemming pointed out to me, I’m … never the biggest fan of in these reviews.
And yeah, I could do without bloody leg braces. Or Nina’s hallucinations where she pulls the nails and skin off her fingers. Or hallucinations of black feathers coming out of Nina’s skin. Or (REDACTED)-up toes because ballet is a nightmare on feet.
Froemming: Nina pulls her skin off like Charlie can pull his teeth out!
Brown: Yep! And no scene in any media makes me squirm harder than this one from “Always Sunny” or when Jeff Goldblum does the same thing in “The Fly.”
Practice isn’t going well because, again, Nina can’t get the passionate black swan to Thomas’ liking.
So how does he demonstrate that point? *checks notes* By fondling his lead actress, Donald Trump-to-Billy Bush style.
Someone needs to bring the Sexual Harassment Panda to this dance company.
Froemming: All this harassment should have all the grants for this production by the National Endowment for the Arts taken away.
He fondles her and then says she should be seducing him, which is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Then, when she has a brief talk with Lily, Lily rats on her to Thomas about being burned out and whatnot. I mean, she is dancing all day and living off grapefruit, eggs and garbage cake, so where is all this energy coming from? The cocaine left over from the “Sgt. Pepper” movie?
Brown: And because Nina is clearly in a mental health crisis, she keeps having hallucinations where Lily is trying to harm her. And Nina keeps finding scratches on her back/shoulder, which is something that Nina has done in the past, according to her mother. It’s to the point where her skin starts looking like a plucked bird’s skin because SYMBOLISM!
Froemming: Yeah. Creepy shit right there.
Anyway, to make up for being someone who broke two of Jimmy Conway’s rules…
…Lily decides to go to Nina’s house and invite her out for a night of booze and drugs. And she meets the mother, who is very rude to her daughter’s guest.
So they go to a bar where Lily offers Nina some X. Well, if there is a drug to make one lose inhibitions and dance like an asshole (like Thomas wants her to do), that is the perfect one.
Brown: I thought we were a James Brown soundtrack and a lizard tail away from this becoming a “Jacob’s Ladder”-type bad trip.
Nina and Lily head back to Nina’s house, where Nina’s stage mother is less than pleased that her daughter got lit up before their stage rehearsal tomorrow. But in an act of drug-fueled rebellion, Nina and Lily go into Nina’s room and have sex. There’s some trippy moments where Nina sees herself as Lily as she dips deeper into this stress-induced psychosis.
The next morning, Nina is late to practice. When she arrives, Lily is there filling in and Nina’s neuroticism is on full display. It’s not helped when Thomas tells Nina that Lily will be her alternative in case anything happens to her.
And to add to the unreliable narrator bit Froemming mentioned before, Lily says they dropped X, but she didn’t go home with Nina. Lily is humored that Nina had a “lezzie dream” about her, because that’s something people said in 2010?
Well, Nina’s visions are getting worse. Not only is she envisioning herself actually becoming a black swan, she envisions Beth stabbing herself in the face with a sharpened nail file while in the hospital.
Yeah, I was sufficiently creeped out by this point.
Froemming: Oh yeah, this is the point of the movie where we do not know what is real or what is in Nina’s brain. She goes home and the paintings of her that her mother made start laughing at her.
Brown: Oh yeah, we should mention that Nina’s mom has paintings of Nina everywhere. It’s like they’re the Skinners doing silhouette night.
Froemming: Then, in her room she begins transforming into a bird. Like Sweet Dee.
Her eyes are blood red, her legs snap in a weird form. She plucks feathers out of her shoulders. It is quite jarring to witness.
And in the morning, she wakes up — late for her big performance. I dunno, being late all the time like she is Axl Rose has got to piss the whole production off, right? Everytime, she just strolls in like Chistopher Moltisanti:
Brown: Not quite. See, due to her increasingly volatile behavior, Nina’s mom shuts off Nina’s alarm and calls the studio to tell them to go with the alternate, Lily.
How does Nina handle this news? By re-breaking her mother’s hand and storming back to the theater for the opening night of “Swan Lake.” Lily is incensed because she was supposed to take on the lead, but Nina gets herself ready for the performance.
Oh, did I mention that she thinks she’s becoming a legit swan? Because now Nina has webbed toes and her neck is stretching out like a bird.
During the middle of the performance, a distracted Nina loses her balance and gets dropped by one of the male dancers.
Going back into her dressing room between acts, Nina sees Lily preparing to go on as the lead. That’s when things get… stabby.
Froemming: This is when Brown and I are…
And Nina stabs Lily in the belly, drags her into a bathroom and leaves her lifeless corpse there so she can go on with the show. Like we all would in that situation.
Then Nina goes on stage and wows everyone with her performance. She literally is turning into a swan at times, dancing like she has never danced before. Which really is confusing when we get to the end of the movie. Because while we are seeing her figuratively pouring her guts out in this production, we should have also seen her literally pouring her guts out in it too.
Brown: Well, when Nina stabs Lily, Lily does transform into Nina during that sequence. It’s a internal struggle.
Brown: Look, Froemming, you just don’t get art.
And after a flawless third act that has Nina plant a kiss on Thomas because of Stockholm Syndrome or something, To add to the confusion, Lily knocks on the door and tells Nina how she’s knocking it out of the (REDACTED) park.
That’s when Nina finds out that she’s bleeding from her torso as she pulls a piece of the mirror out of her abdomen.
As her costume starts to get more and more bloody, Nina performs the finale, which has the white swan jumping off a ledge and committing suicide.
… It’s a bird. It flies. That makes no sense.
The group celebrates, but it’s cut short when they notice that Nina’s bleeding out. All the while, Nina is just proud that her performance was perfect.
Froemming: How come I get the feeling this performance was more like the end of this:
Brown: Yeah, I mean if you forget about the spill you took earlier, it was perfect.
I also don’t get art.
And I dunno about Froemming, but I had a Ron Swanson moment after this ending.
Froemming, let’s get to recommendations while I schedule an appointment with a dermatologist over my chicken-like skin.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Brown: Oh yeah. I was fascinated with this movie. Darren Aronofsky movies make me very uncomfortable but I’m fascinated by the man’s movies.
Froemming: Yeah. But like every Aronofsky, it is only really watchable one time. He is great at what he does, but his movies I can only do one sitting.
Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN: