Darren Aronofsky is a mad genius, a filmmaker of such fully formed technical skill that his abilities overshadow our true ability to see him as a master of cinema that is unable to explicate his substance and meet the power of his image. His films are formed of fire and blood. The grit and anxiety of being a filmmaker is always on display in his work; his movies show the sweat of their creator more than any other current working auteur, except perhaps, Lars von Trier.
In Aronofsky’s latest film mother! he isn’t only working to will his creation to the screen by sheer force, he is propelling the audience with him on this journey, letting them peek into his psyche, and that psyche is a crowded and clustered space that is filled with more ego and circumstance than a small house can contain. This is a movie that is begging to rip open and spew. It can’t be contained, for better and for worse.
The setup of mother! is a relatively simple premise of a couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, who’s cold marriage is interrupted by another married couple played by Ed Harris and eventually Michelle Pfeiffer. There, the biblical allusions begin. Harris is seen kneeling over a toilet and coughing uncontrollably with a wound on his back. Pfeiffer it would seem is his Eve, born out of his rib.
The allegory is set up clearly from the start as these strangers take up residence in the home. Lawrence’s character is restoring the home herself while Bardem’s poet is stricken with writer’s block. She’s consistently restoring while he is consistently thinking about his inability to create. The unwelcome guests are the catalyst for their marriage being exploited by Bardem’s toxicity.
Aronofsky structures the film in two parts and the first half is the finest work of his career. It shows a control of tone and atmosphere that is lacking in much of his work. While he is a genius, like many brilliant minds, he can’t get out of his own way sometimes. He is the cinematic equivalent to Kanye West. He is so enamored with his own ability that he doesn’t stop to consider the material.
This first hour is tense, unsettling, and wickedly funny. Aronofsky can be so self-serious at times that his material turns into camp. The interplay between Pfeiffer and Lawrence is the stuff of a modernist Checkov. The two women are antagonists from the outset, and Pfeiffer’s vampy wife is the wrench in the spoke that topples the story into a spiral of depravity and brutal self-examination.
Then, on a dime, the movie morphs into something that is much unrulier. The second half shows a master filmmaker at an artistic crossroads. mother! is centered on an artist willing their work into existence, from chaos into creation. This is where the audience begins to understand how the script was written in five days by Aronofsky himself, and it feels like an unfiltered examination of his therapy sessions.
The excellence of the first hour begins to crumble under the weight of a screenplay that is too loose to find true coherence. Aronofsky’s id seems splayed on the screen like a mad painter unable control his impulses on a canvas that is both too small and too large simultaneously.
Lawrence is an actress that I have never been able to fully embrace. Her talent seems suited to the likes of the studio fare that made her famous. There is a peek into something different here. As the film descends into a labyrinth of Dante-esque imagery and depravity, Lawrence grounds the film in a way that I don’t think she could have done five years ago. It is the kind of sturdy role that she hopefully continues to flourish in.
Everyone else in the film is really a supporting player, even Bardem. Harris and Pfeiffer know the material they are working with exceptionally well. They fall into their roles like puzzle pieces, particularly Pfeiffer. Her petty and vampy wife stomps into the home with a kind of reckless abandon that can only be found when happy hour starts before lunch. Her verbal dexterity with the dialogue matches Lawrence’s ethereal passivity perfectly.
It is Bardem that becomes the standout though. His fractured male ego is amplified by his inability to create anything. He can’t write, he can’t conjure a sexual relationship with his wife, and he can’t create a sense of peace within his home. Bardem’s restless physicality and obtuse accommodation of anyone that isn’t his wife give Bardem the kind of role he hasn’t had in years. It is easy to see how he is married to a woman twenty years younger than him, but also how sexually, he is stuck in a stasis.
The cinematography by Matthew Labatique and the sound design from Paula Fairfield are the rocks to which this film is built. Labatique’s camera, never far from Lawrence’s face or her point of view, turns this deserted manor into an increasingly claustrophobic arena. His camera in the first half is subtle, calm, even while in motion. The camera in the second half takes these same techniques and applies them to a maddening effect, except the tepidity of the camera is substituted with the vitriol of a war film.
Labatique’s cinematography works in congruity with the sharp and immersive sound design. Fairfield focuses on every clink of a glass, every turn of a knob, and the sound of every piece of glass breaking. This attention to detail leaves the film devoid of silence until a late moment when all sound stops and we are deafened by the quiet, deafened by the emptiness, because we are left with the loneliness of what happens after the fall.
Aronofsky is a filmmaker that is obsessed with the call to hurtle oneself deeper into a pit of madness and isolation for art. Black Swan most closely tracks the artist’s pull towards the darkness to create, but madness is the theme for all of his work. This time, it is his own and Bardem is the stand-in. This being the case, Aronofsky has inflated himself to an egoist of perplexing and stupefying ignorance. If mother! is any indication, Aronofsky has a level of self-trust and personally realized genius that would make him intolerable to any normal person.
mother! is destined to be a movie that is talked about for years to come. Aronofsky is stretching the bounds of cinema and creating a piece of art that needs to be reckoned with. It is not a film that will be an easy second watch, but it merits the consideration. The second half is unwieldly and really does collapse itself, but there is no mistaking that Aronosky is an artist that is pouring his sweat and blood onto the screen. mother! is far from perfect, it is grotesque, unable to truly examine the themes it desperately wants to, and in the end becomes an organic being that has sprung from its creator like a demon he can’t control.
— Peterson Hill
Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give in to it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.
Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.
The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother! is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.
When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.
Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.
This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.
mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wakeup call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like IT about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.
Nate’s Grade: B+
— Nate Zoebl