Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson
Darren Aronofsky is no less than a visual genius, this much is certain. From the gruesome displays of addiction in Requiem for a Dream that strike at the heart like a sledgehammer, and the logical-yet-dreamlike qualities of Noah and The Fountain, to the dark, organic psychological horror of Black Swan, this fact is in no need of further evidence. His narrative skill, however, has been called into question with this film, which is already considered his most controversial. What do I think? I wonder if you can guess.
In a far off paradise, a husband (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) exist peacefully in a rebuilt mansion. But soon uninvited guests arrive and shatter their tranquil lives. The wife is particularly distressed, as her husband seems to not only share a different view of their presence, he revels in the attention. As more and more strangers pour into their remote home, the wife begins to realize that things aren’t what they seem.
Mother! is the kind of film I can get behind. It may not present its story in a decidedly-subtle manner, but the passion in its poetry and impressionistic style is endearing, to the point of greatness even. When it comes down to it, marketing is what killed this film. Instead of being sold as what it is, an arthouse film in the vein of The Holy Mountain or Koyaanisqatsi, it was presented to audiences as a horror film, and while I would argue that it counts as one, I can see why most would at first disagree.
It features several conventions that I know I enjoy: a singular, but interesting, location, nameless characters portrayed by top-rate actors, and heavy allegorical and metaphorical visuals. Like It before, Mother! is the kind of film I would imagine myself doing and not changing a thing, a perfect sync of taste and tact between myself and the filmmaker. Aronofsky employs a heavy grain field over the 16mm negative, so wildly creative a choice of stock that I wonder if imdb.com lied and it was really 35mm. So vivid is the image, whether centering on the earthy browns of the megalithic house or on the spectacular precious metals of the final act, that my brain refuses to believe it was shot on such a puny material.
The performances are a sight to behold. Jennifer Lawrence slams another one out of the park, portraying a fair harvest goddess of a wife, her hair seemingly flowing back from her perfect body, a mask for the frustration of a woman who just wants to be everything her husband needs. Bardem as that husband proves to be a disappointment for her, as he is a writer–you see where this is going. Dealing with a forceful bout of writer’s block, the husband proves to be disturbingly naive when he allows several rude and destructive strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) into their home, forever upsetting the quiet status quo the wife worked so hard to accomplish.
What is so striking is how the film builds and uses tension to progress the plot. Through the first and second acts, the film is an exercise in discomfort, with silent embarrassment on the part of the wife, and by proxy the audience, mounting into confusion, then frustration, then desperation as both she and you want it to end. From the 20 minute mark, I knew this film would never be for anyone. It takes a keen, or at least an open, mind to be able to sit through a film so uncomfortable to watch to reach any kind of payoff. What is more incredible is how uncomfortable it was without being gory, shocking, or gratuitous.
As the story moves into the final act, the visual metaphors increase exponentially, with a particularly crucial sequence depicting a chaotic apocalypse as the house is destroyed taking center stage. In it, the wife stumbles through the packed house as it begins to devolve into anarchy, containing such sights as police lines meeting rioting protesters, combat soldiers raiding hostile areas, and the rituals of a decidedly Judeo-Christian sort permeating the climax of the film. Throughout, tiny objects of significance to the plot are depicted with subtlety and grace, never overpowering the story with unnecessary baggage. It’s a right balance of surrealism and logical storytelling, almost to the point of journeying into meta-textual territory as a stage play on film.
(Now I’ve never done this in one of my reviews, but consider this paragraph a spoiler warning. If you haven’t seen the film, skip ahead past the picture.) This film’s allegorical clout is huge, albeit obvious. Having come off of similar theistic themes in Noah, it seems Aronofsky decided to marry that film’s heart with the aesthetics of The Fountain and Pi, almost creating a successor to Lars Von Trier or Alejandro Jodorowsky. My quick and dirty reading of the film on the spot would be one reflecting the Earth as Gaia, represented by the wife, and by extension the house, the two of which are intrinsically linked. Married to a mysterious and tumultuous figure in the husband, who could represent either the concept of the One True God or the toxic masculinity of the male gender, she is subjected to the same torture and injury we as a race so illogically inflict on our own mother, the Earth itself. Short (and barely right) answer: Mother! is about pollution and global warming. Slightly longer and more accurate answer, Mother! presents a dreamlike encapsulation of the destructive power of the human race upon its creator.
As I said before, this film is not for everyone. Being first and foremost an arthouse film, its audience is already disparate and narrow, and when taking into account the rather disturbing and distressing events and imagery of the final act, its failure to find success seems in hindsight to be inevitable. But I predict good things to come for Mother!, as its potential to be a cult hit for decades is quite high. If you want more traditional (but still great) scares, go see It. If a more esoteric and mythical take on horror is appealing to you, then give this one a whirl. To put it bluntly, as a fellow critic has already said, “the next time a film gets an F from Cinemascore, I’m gonna be hella hype.”