OnScreen Review: 'mother!'

OnScreen Review: 'mother!'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

I feel 100% confident in saying that I did not get 100% of everything that happened in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Mother!, but I am 100% confident that I am not supposed to get 100% of it. Aronofsky is a director who is no stranger to controversial, confounding films, and Mother! is no exception. Mother! is perhaps his most cryptic film yet, and this is the same director who made Pi.

At the beginning of the year, on my old blog, I listed it at #20 for my Most Anticipated Films of 2017. I wrote, “Darren Aronofsky returns with this drama about a couple who has their relationship tested when uninvited guests arrive in their home.  Based on the title, which may be a working title, this sounds like a family drama, but Aronofsky films are rarely so straightforward, so I’m guessing there’s a lot more to this basic plotline.” I was certainly right that there was a lot more to the basic description of the plot. I was wrong in saying that it was a drama of any sort; this film is a straight up psychological horror.

The film is mostly (entirely?) allegorical, with a couple at the center of everything known only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). Names are never mentioned through the entire film. They live in a big, tranquil country home surrounded by fields and trees, not even a road leading to the house is visible. He is a poet and she is his wife, wholly committed to him and the restoration of his house, which burned down horrifically once. As he states it, “she breathed life back into it.” It’s their little paradise.

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Essentially, Mother! is bifurcated into two parts. In the first half or so, their peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of a stranger at their door, thinking it was a bed and breakfast he was looking for. They allow this Man (Ed Harris) to stay the night. The next day his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), shows up and stays, asking questions that are far too personal. Eventually, their two sons show up, leading to a family squabble and an incident which results in more uninvited guests showing up at their door. The second part of the film is a giant descent into madness as Bardem’s Him, after experiencing writer’s block, suddenly has a breakthrough, leading to newfound fame, and basically an invasion of guests that turns into an ever-quickening series of horrific scenes and incidents, rife with metaphor and religious allegory.

Mother! is bound to be the most divisive film of the year. Some critics have said it is little more than a variation of torture porn. Others have said it is the worst film of the century. Still others have praised its ambition and compared it to the visionary boldness of acclaimed directors like Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski. The polarization of viewers in seeing it is clearly leading to some hyperbolic reactions. This film is nowhere near bad enough to be the worst of the century, nor is it coherent enough to have praises heaped upon its head without saying there are some problematic elements.

Aronofsky, by his own admission, has said that the film kind of falls apart if you pick at it too much. When you couple this with the fact that he wrote the screenplay in five days, incredibly fast for him, and it’s hard for me to get so worked up about what, for example, he might be trying to say with his heavy use of religious iconography. In some ways, perhaps it is best looked at as having a fever-dream, waking nightmare logic to it, perhaps how you are apparently supposed to take in a David Lynch film. Perhaps that is why I struggled with some of it.

Before I saw it, my Movie Twitter-verse was talking about it a lot. One person said that if you asked 75 people what it was about they would all declare something and it could be 75 different answers. I’m still processing everything I saw, but I can confidently identify at least readings of the film that mostly work; in fact, I think a proper reading of the film includes some combination of all three of them, and maybe more.

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Religion (Christianity, in particular), environmentalism, and the creative process are the three strongest threads of this story that Aronofsky has concocted. There is a pretty clear through line of from God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Bardem’s Him and the Man and Woman portrayed by Harris and Pfeiffer, including a room in the house with a valuable item in it that is off limits to them, which they enter anyway. They even have two sons that pretty clearly reflect the story of Cain and Abel. It later ventures into a disturbing appropriation of a nativity scene. Lawrence’s Mother can be viewed as a Mother Earth figure, alarmed by the increasingly harmful guests that overpopulating her home and beginning to ruin it. There is a pretty clear message here that we are guests doing great harm to this place and these people that have opened their home to us. The house itself even seems to be alive, as at several points in the film Lawrence leans her head again a wall and the camera peers inside to show the beating, slowly decaying heart of the house. And there is a quick succession of political and military imagery too, with the final 30 minutes of the film feeling like a condensed history of the the world. Finally, there is the idea of Bardem and Lawrence as the creator and muse. He is a poet; she is referred to as “The Inspiration” by another character. She suffers for his work, he puts his art out to the masses, and they consume it, make it their own, and maybe even destroy it. Regardless of the reading you take from the film, there is an apocalyptic sense to the intense ending. It’s no mistake that things soon spiral out of control after Mother says in a nonchalant joke, “I’ll just get started on the apocalypse.”

Mother! seems to be ambitious filmmaking filled with interesting and challenging ideas being told to you by a schizophrenic off their medication . There is no grand, unifying theory to Mother!; no pat answers that will put a nice bow on everything. It’s interesting, yes, but also incredibly messy; that messiness holds it back in some regards and is downright disturbing at times, but it is also something that makes it distinctly Aronofsky. That may confound, provoke, or challenge depending on the viewer.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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