Walking out of the screening for mother!, auteur Darren Aronofsky’s curiously titled new offering, my mind was reeling like few other cinematic experiences I have ever had. Through this woozy haze though, I immediately knew two things with absolute certainty: 1) People are going to loathe this movie with a bombastic fiery passion, and 2) people are going to applaud this movie with a bombastic fiery passion.
Confused? Well, get used to it, as mother! is often a confounding piece of cinema. It’s very much a mystery but also a multi-layered fevered dream, an allegorical impressionistic art piece, the relevance and meaning of which needs to be parsed through the personal psyche and experiences of the observer to be understood. It’s audacious, bamboozling and almost fecund in creativity.
That description belies its most simplistic of setups though: Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play a married couple living in a remote gothic house, surrounded by nothing but nature. He’s a once-great writer failing to find a creative spark again much to his mounting frustration, while she is an unerringly devoted partner who almost single-handedly rebuilt and revamped his sprawling childhood home, once almost completely burnt to ash in a distant fire.
Their simplistic, binary existence is shattered though when a sickly doctor (Ed Harris) mysteriously appears at their door late at night after seemingly mistaking their house for a bed and breakfast. When the writer invites this stranger to stay over, his wife is justifiably uneasy despite her husband’s instant rapport with this guest. Her unease grows to incredulity though when the doctor’s vampish wife (Michelle Pfeifer) shows up the next day, suitcase in hand, seemingly also having been invited by the writer without consultation.
Soon frustration turns to anger at the unexpected houseguests, as the doctor’s overbearing wife judges and admonishes at every turn, stalking through rooms as she sips boozy lemonade. However, when familial catastrophe strikes… Well, you will just have to see for yourself.
And this is truly the most aggravating thing about mother! – trying to talk about it without ruining the experience for the next person. Aronofsky has steeped this film in so much secrecy that I couldn’t even use the names of the characters played by these actors, as you may have noticed. That’s the most minor of spoilery details though compared to the rest of the film, all of which needs to be experienced in its jaw-dropping glory as cleanly as possible.
As for what I can say about mother!: you simply cannot fault it on a technical level. Led by an extremely game Lawrence, who has to carry the bulk of the film, the cast all turn in stellar performances one and all. Aronofsky is also at the very top of his directing game here. Working with longtime cinematography partner Mathew Libatique, the filmmaker follows Lawrence with an almost documentarian approach, claustrophobic camerawork zeroing in on her experience of what transpires around her. This is her story, and its by peeking over her shoulder or seeing the cascade of emotions on her face from uncomfortably close range that we get to experience it.
Meanwhile, the film eschews a traditional music score for the most part, instead relying on unconventional but supremely effective sound design. The constant creaking of the old half-refurbished house and several recurring cues and motifs combine to form an oppressive soundscape that builds tension and has you doubting your other senses.
mother! is also a frighteningly ambitious film in terms of content and execution, the likes of which generally just doesn’t get made by big movie studios. This makes Aronofsky’s previous brushes with filmmaking infamy – The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and Noah – look like placid Sunday school Bible stories. To call it the most controversial and divisive film of the year may seem to be dipping into the hyperbolic, but it is fully deserving of that… accolade?
Certainly, there appears to be pride in the stoking as Aronofsky’s sole intention here is, in fact, to be reactionary. He doesn’t care about playing by genre rules – it runs the full gamut from marital drama to psychological thriller to gut-churning body horror and everything in between – nor could he be bothered with whether you love or hate mother! All he wants here is for you to think and talk about it.
And as the never-ending churning machinery of my thoughts over the last few days can attest, you definitely will be returning to this one over and over in your mind. You may spot some incongruities in the script though which, even armed with the hindsight of having puzzled out its narrative rules, don’t quite make sense. However, these are dwarfed by everything else that’s going on as Aronofsky conjures up scenes that are possibly the most viscerally insane things I’ve ever seen done by mainstream Hollywood. I will give out a warning that could be considered a minor spoiler: The film’s final act boils up to peak Aronofsky mania and is presented in such an unflinching manner that it will undoubtedly leave some audience members writhing in their seats, their ragged nails gouging trenches in their armrests.
So yes, it’s meant to elicit a response – shock, revelation, anger, enlightenment or disgust – and this is where that chasmic divide comes in. Once you’ve pierced the veil of what mother! actually is about, many of you will dismiss it as pretentious philosophizing disguised as art, while many others will praise it as a tour de force dissection of humanity. I can almost guarantee that none of you will like it though.
You can’t “like” a movie like this. It’s too bold, too utterly bonkers in its disregard for conventional cinematic niceties. What you can do, like I have found myself doing after hours of rumination and dissection on what I had witnessed/survived, is appreciate and respect it immensely. mother! is often obscenely hard to watch, but it’s also a movie that deserves to be seen (several times actually to put it all together coherently). This is the type of challenging filmmaking that is far too rare, and irrespective of how you end up feeling about mother!, it’s hard to deny that few films are as deserving of that unexpected emphatic punctuation mark at the end of its title.
Last Updated: November 10, 2017