Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer
From its fiery beginning in which a feminine form is engulfed in flames through to Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless Mother waking up and pointedly addressing an off-screen someone, “Baby”, Aronofsky shows his audience the kind of ride this is going to be. It’s there every step of the way, right from the willfully obtuse but beautiful way in which he depicts the film’s setting – an octagon shaped country house – resurrecting itself from the ashes. There is magic and mysticism here, these scenes tell us. What we’re being presented with is not a conventional piece of narrative cinema, nor a naturalistic one. Aronofsky’s gotten us into the seats with his clout and his attractive star names. But it’s all a ruse to get our attention. It’s time for a sermon; a sermon on suffering.
Lawrence’s Mother dotes on this wonderful old house which she lives in with her partner (Javier Bardem, credited only as Him). While he struggles with writer’s block, she tends to restoring the building, her attention consumed by her intentions to have everything be preserved just so. There’s a rustic sensibility to the house that she is intrinsically connected to; so much so that, when she places a palm to the wall, she can visualise its beating heart within.
Then, oh!, a stranger arrives (Ed Harris). He’s an ailing doctor (credited only as Man – it’s that kind of movie). Without consulting her, this doctor is invited to stay by Him, and in front of Mother’s eyes he starts taking liberties. He smokes in the house when asked not to. He wanders into rooms he’s not supposed to. Mother’s partner stops listening to her, becoming interested solely in their visitor, Man. And then, the next morning, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. Lawrence’s character is all at sea with these changes, and can’t understand why her beloved partner won’t recognise how ill at ease she is. Why oh why won’t he stand up for her? And why doesn’t she stand up for herself?
Events escalate and grow considerably stranger, as they are prone to in a Darren Aronofsky film. Like previous pictures such as The Wrestler and Black Swan, he trades in grainy intimacy with a roving camera courtesy of Matthew Libatique. He pushes uncomfortably in on his characters, swirling around them. Mainly, it must be said, Lawrence, whom the film is in rapturous admiration of. She is the centre of everything and she’s in near enough every scene of the film, constantly twirling to keep up with the rapid changes striking at her cherished home. This goes beyond the pride of Mother’s work or any material satisfaction; her well-being is tethered to that of her home.
In its first hour – before Aronofsky has truly shown his hand – there’s a lot to unpack and mother! proves promising if troubled. In these early stages it seems as though a straight battle of the sexes is on the cards, and that Aronofsky is making his statement about society’s patriarchy; that women are ignored or discredited by dominant males. This reading of the film doesn’t go away. It’s entirely deliberate and the relationship between Mother and Him is an okay microcosm of the idea if exploitative and gratuitous in a Lars Von Trier kind of way, but that isn’t nearly the limit of what it’s director has prepared to ram down your throat.
There’s no subtlety here, no nuance or deftness to any of the proceedings. There isn’t even a baseline of ‘normality’ to use as a measure against the chaos to come. From the off the relationship between Mother and Him is weird. Or else something mysterious is happening or allusions are being made. The film purposefully puts you on the back foot and keeps you there, teasing the significance of certain statements or objects, encouraging the audience to guess. There’s hubris in that. Aronofsky enjoys playing the man behind the curtain a little too much. It’s ego. Like Alejandro González Iñárritu, he celebrates himself through his work. It all feels uncomfortably like showing off. Grandstanding.
Time speeds by in the world of the film and, following a bracing mid section which leaves Lawrence to explore sinister basement discoveries on her lonesome, mother! projects us into an extremely chaotic and punishing final stretch in which all that is held dear is placed in jeopardy. And still He won’t listen to Her. Aronofsky loves an overwrought crescendo, and the one he whips up here is his most technically astounding and fatuous all at once. It’s a minor miracle to see something so off-the-chart crazy getting pumped into multiplexes via Paramount Pictures. This ape-shittery is the promotional wrap-around border on the imdb. This. There’s something perversely admirable in that. You do sort of want to give Aronofsky credit for duping the general public into swallowing so much pretentious pap…
It’s worth remembering the train of thought he’s been on this decade. The thudding biblical slog of Noah may have felt like a conspicuous stumble in his career, but religion is evidently still weighing heavy on the man’s heart. mother! projects bellowing questions about our relationship with God, while simultaneously pretending it’s trying to hide the megaphone. It feels clumsy, as though Aronofsky would like to appear coy, but doesn’t want us missing the message. As though it were possible to ignore someone battering your walls down with a sledgehammer.
This is one of those fascinating occasions on which a world-class talent at the peak of his/her powers makes a colossal failure right in front of everyone. Picking through the wreckage of mother! is almost as interesting as examining the greatness of so many other, better pictures. I saw this in a packed public screening on the day of release. The mood in the auditorium when the credits rolled was fairly hostile. mother! is not a crowd pleaser. It isn’t designed to be. It’s here to preach and to fuck you over. Decide very carefully if that’s what you want.