In Review: Mother!
Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ is beautiful, disturbing and terrifying, but is it worth watching?
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris
Let’s just get this out of the way. This film is insane… Disturbing… Deranged…
And I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen.
It’s certainly not the film I expected to see, based on the advertising. Then again, what else can we expect from the ever-so-slightly unhinged mind of Aronofsky.
‘The Fountain’ remains one of my favorite films of all time. I don’t say that in a pseudo-intellectual, pretentious sort of way. For all its flaws, Aronofsky’s mastery of visual storytelling through symbols, iconography and images is second to none. On a surface level, it’s hard to take a film about a bald Hugh Jackman flying in a terrarium through space and time seriously. The image of Hugh Jackman’s chest bursting with flowers would feel at home in Franco’s upcoming film ‘The Disaster Artist’, let alone a grandiose film spanning thousands of years, love, life and death. It’s quite frankly laughable. But there are moments of excellence. Tom And Izzi in the bathtub. Intimacy. Regret. Acceptance. It’s those moments that we remember. Devoted serfs to the cult of Aronofsky scrounge the internet defending the film and the rest of his oeuvre, explaining each layer of complexity, trying to unravel the ‘mystery’ of the film to deaf ears.
I was never really interested in any of that. It’s okay not to understand every detail. There is no doubt that ‘mother!’ is a complex tapestry of religious symbolism, but that isn’t what makes the film so great. That wasn’t what made ‘The Fountain’ such a pivotal film for me. It was how it made me feel. This film is no different. It is a masterclass of psychological horror, and perhaps his strongest work yet.
By now, we all know the basic premise of ‘mother!’. An exercise in minimalist storytelling, we experience the world through the subjectivity of Lawrence, simply known as ‘mother’. Shot on 16mm film, mostly in tight profile on wider lenses, our camera remains belligerently locked on Lawrence’s eyes and back for the majority of the film, only shifting perspective to ‘him’ (Javier Bardem) to bookend the film into a seemingly circular structure. The 16mm presentation contributes to the seemingly ‘homely’ color palette, with a soft, dream like grain structure and softness that juxtaposes so brilliantly with the vehement display of horror on screen.
Walking into the theater, it was clear that this film was mis-marketed. That’s not to say I have a solution. How on earth do you market a film like this? Suffice to say, about a third of my packed opening night theater walked out and did not return. I suspect they were trying to replicate the horror experience of Stephen King’s ‘It’, only to be disappointed. According to Google, only a poultry 43% of audiences liked the film, in stark contrast with a generally high critic rating.
It is clear that this is not a movie for everyone.
We can’t blame the audience for this lack of engagement. This is not a war between critics and audiences. There is fundamentally something ‘off’ about the movie, but that’s exactly what it’s about. I felt a little more than uneasy in parts. The discomfort experienced watching this film proved too much for some, evidently. But we share that discomfort with Lawrence. It is true psychological horror.
It is the performances by our leads that capstone this film as potentially one of the greats. Jennifer Lawrence delivers one of the best performances of the year so far. The specificity of her performance is nothing short of astounding. Vulnerability oozes from the cracks of her facial performance and interplay of eye lines, the minutia forming a narrative that is distinct from the facade that is presented on screen. Aronofsky’s camera often stays with Lawrence for extended beats, delivering us brief moments to catch our breath between the growing cacophony of hate and terror, and later on force us to watch her break as her perfect world crumbles into the abyss of Aronofsky’s absurd mind.
Speaking of absurdity, there is plenty of it. The house literally becomes wounded and ‘bleeds’ as we descend into psychosis. Her connection to the house is not only metaphorical but psychical, an idea we are presented with from the opening image. The film is structurally separated into three ‘incidents’, each rising in absurdity. Lawrence’s initial standoffish reaction to Ed Harris, our first guest to knock on the front door, feels almost unreasonable. As the film progresses, Lawrence’s exasperation and anxiety comes to a head as more house-guests pour in and begin to disrupt her perfect world. But it is not the house guests that are entirely responsible for the growing sense of anxiety…
Bardem’s performance as ‘him’ and the dynamics between them underpin the film’s feeling of unease. At the surface level, he appears to be a loving husband. As the film progresses, however, Bardem’s true motivations become clear through the sub textual power struggle and control he has over Lawrence. She behaves like a battered housewife, submissive and only protesting to the growing absurdity in private. Portrayals of sexuality play a large part in the narrative of vulnerability the film presents. From the opening frame her breasts are visible through her clothes. Michelle Pfieffer’s rude, arrogant persona challenge’s Lawrence’s sensibilities and questions her sexuality. House guests make snood comments.
We feel vulnerable.
This feeling of anxiety is heightened through the soundscape. Aronofsky’s body of work has always been characterized by a heightened sense environmental awareness and score. ‘mother!’ is not lacking in this department, delivering a crisp, claustrophobic experience. The clanging of pots and pans, footsteps and heartbeats emblematize her anxiety, working together to enclose us within the limited space of the performances. We truly feel trapped inside this house. Mansell’s score is subdued, not drawing attention to itself, helping to immerse us in the world. Frankly, the grandiose harmonies of a track such as ‘Tree of life’ would of felt out of place in this world.
Watching this film a second time, I can’t help but think of the parallels between the auteur and the Bardem character. The fight that breaks out between Lawrence and Bardem at the mid point must be some form of sick catharsis for Aronofsky’s own personal issues. At the very least, Bardem’s writer’s block and inability to creatively express himself leaking into other parts of his life are not unique to the film. In fact, some parts feel deeply personal. Bardem is much older than Lawrence, struggling to follow up the success of his first work. I can’t help but think of comparisons to the Director’s personal relationship to Lawrence. Regardless, Aronofsky’s understanding of femininity and the female experience simmer through his writing, creating a realistic story and characters that resonated with me. Lawrence is given a chance to fight back, satisfyingly standing up to her oppressors and bullies towards the end of the film, only to be punished and completely shattered.
As a body of work, ‘mother!’ felt like a much more cohesive experience than the aforementioned ‘The Fountain’ or even ‘Black Swan’ (will always be a masterpiece) due to its intense specificity and focus of narrative. To me, it represents a maturity in Aronofsky’s body of work. But let’s talk about…The ending…
The ending is bananas.
After our fade to black, and the title credits flickered on screen, I remained in my seat utterly confused, and a bit disgusted at what I just witnessed. This is why people started walking out towards the end of the film. The remaining audience goers did not grant themselves this moment of reflexive thought and fled as far away as they could from the cinema as fast as possible. I overheard a couple exclaim ‘That was honestly the weirdest film I've ever seen.’ That just about sums it up. Lawrence is placed in the middle of an absolutely absurd and ever worsening situation that ultimately breaks her. I’m still thinking about that scene. Yes, that one. Those images will stay with me for a long time.
Upon second viewing, I realized that the horror displayed on screen exists to reinforce the central thesis of the film and religiosity. As stated before, i’m not interested in picking out every detail and symbol in the film. What’s important is that after the second viewing, i felt her struggle more intensely. That struggle we all feel. Our own feelings of helplessness. It felt like a dramatization of the entrapment we all feel in our everyday lives… Our marriages, our jobs…
This is a film that you should go and see in the theaters. It may not be a film you want to see twice. Like ‘Requiem for a Dream’, this is another Aronofsky picture that I have seen enough of for the time being. But, I think it is a film that is important to see at least once. It is challenging, sad, beautiful, melancholy and reflexive all in the space of two hours.
It’s a film that will stay with you for time to come, love it or hate it.
— Luke Parker.