The first and last word you hear in mother! are “baby,” but between those utterances lies what is likely to be the year’s most polarizing film, an artful exegesis that bites off more than it can chew, then begins to vomit violently.
mother! is writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s seventh full-length feature film, and while Aronofsky is certainly one of cinema’s more interesting auteurs, not every time at bat is going to be a home run. His latest is even more of an experiment than usual; a provocative, intentionally upsetting gauntlet of metaphors and shock corridors that will impress some and leave the rest appalled, if not bored.
Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular mother, and Javier Bardem is her husband, a frustrated and blocked poet of some mysterious renown. Alone together in an idyllic, much-too-large home, they live a quiet, simple life until it gets disrupted by unexpected visitors, starting with Ed Harris and his wife Michelle Pfeiffer. Things escalate as complications arise, disquieting aspects of the house begin to reveal themselves, more people show up, and Lawrence gets more and more aggravated, with no help from her husband.
Aronofsky and his regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique keep Lawrence in the frame for most of mother!’s running time, often in tight, claustrophobic close-ups that heighten tension when it seems and sounds like threatening elements are just out of frame as she walks through what should be an empty house. It calls to mind the snorricam the two used so well in Requiem For A Dream. The sound design creaks and whispers in our ears, building up to what will eventually be a mob, a rave, and a war zone. All these technical aspects are done well, on par with what we expect from both Aronofsky and a studio picture.
It’s the “story” that’s a minefield. Very early on, and very obviously, you catch on that the central characters are stand-ins for Higher Things. They can be said to be different Things at different phases of the film, because it doesn’t always track consistently, and maybe that’s intentional. But it’s also the behavior of someone who wants to have their cake and eat it too, and you then have a case of kitchen-sinkitis, where anything and everything can be thrown onscreen, because anything can stand for anything.
It can be off-putting to see Lawrence’s character suffer abuse after abuse for the film’s two hours plus change, especially when we know she’s excellent at playing stronger female characters who would’ve kicked everyone’s ass and burned the house down by the end of the second reel. Lawrence submits to Aronofsky’s vision as her character submits to her love for her husband, an all-giving, all-consuming love that is taken advantage of at every turn. At a certain point the abuse of the character gets exhausting, and the tone of the film curdles, and it’s wise of Aronofsky to at that point turn the film into the blackest comedy of his career.
While it’s entertaining to watch just how bananas mother! can get, ultimately it’s a heavy-handed art lecture that is inelegant and blunt-edged. Religion, toxic masculinity, The Giving Tree, climate change… all these have a go at the wheel. Having to write circles around scenarios to maintain the conceit of no one giving away their name, behavior that doesn’t bother with being realistic way before the rug is pulled, these are problems that could’ve been addressed earlier. We aren’t dealing with characters so much as walking metaphors, and once you glom on to that it’s hard to care on an emotional level. And on the intellectual level, there’s nothing especially new here. If you’ve been to any halfway decent contemporary art museum in the last five years then the notion of God as narcissist is well-worn territory. Maybe Aronofsky can’t shake his obsession with the Bible. Maybe the marketing is to blame, as they dressed up an art film as a thriller.
Visually, it is interesting to watch how far Aronofsky and co. push their concepts, bending time and assaulting the senses, making the last act grow to a fever pitch in a fever dream of a denouement. Watching an artist of his caliber spill his brains out is worthwhile, but in this case, not especially entertaining. This would be more impressive had 2017 not already gifted us with 18 hours of new David Lynch material in Twin Peaks: The Return. When it comes to obtuse symbology, Aronofsky is no Lynch.
While it sometimes feels like the teens from Saturday Night Live’s High School Theatre Show were given $40 million, it’s still worth mentioning that it’s better to see an artist taking bold, crazy risks, even if the ultimate result may be a blackly comic joke, repeated ad nauseam, and at our expense.
Photo from BBC