Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michele Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Sometimes, gifted artists become enamored by their own creations. Sometimes, they dispense faux-modesty while harboring delusions of grandeur. Sometimes, they create from their gut instinct with a mixture of sweat, panic, and hemorrhaging blood. Such artists buy into a self-mythology (encouraged by a throng of worshipful fans) predicated on the notion that whatever comes spilling out of their heads should be admired simply for existing. A filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, who is no stranger to extreme characters whose drive for perfection leads them toward madness, seems keenly aware of the messianic artist exercising the creation/destruction model. So much so, that he's baked that theme into his latest gonzo chamber drama Mother!, along with overt religious symbolism, creaky horror tropes, ecological themes, and trendy sociopolitical allusions. The results are simultaneously oppressive, repetitive, goofy, and singular. There's no doubt Aronofsky is straining for the kind of polarizing, WTF sensibility that's inspired legions of admirers to hold up films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream as personal favorites, but this time, he's bought into his own self-mythology in a way which blocks out the audience altogether.
Whereas in the past, Aronofsky has couched his penchant for symbolism and surrealism within the realm of actual characters operating in the real world (The Fountain and Noah are notable exceptions), here he's working independently in the mode of allegory. Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular "mother", while Javier Bardem is the ineffectual poet husband (listed only as "Him" in the credits). They live in an old Victorian home in the middle of nowhere. He's the sulking artist trying to recapture some of his former glory struggling with writer's block. She's the subservient muse, quietly encouraging her husband while dutifully going about remodeling the entire home. Meanwhile, the walls groan, creak, and yes, hemorrhage blood as the lady of the house stops to telepathically communicate with the beating heart hidden deep within the rot-infested structure. If all of this doesn't sound bizarre enough, two strangers emerge in the form of a doctor and his wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively) who barge into the couple's home and upend their seemingly idyllic living space.
For the first two-thirds, Mother! plays as a kind of Roman Polanski-esque chamber drama with tinges of psychological horror. Is Lawrence an unreliable narrator (much like the protagonist in Pi, Natalie Portman's obsessive dancer in Black Swan, or any number of characters from Requiem For A Dream), or is there something more overtly supernatural afoot here? Aided by regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky keeps his camera tight and hand-held, shooting from Lawrence's increasingly bewildered wife's perspective. As Harris and Pfeiffer become more of a nuisance, the closeups become more restrictive; relegated to either point of view shots, over the shoulder angles, or quick whip pans. The horror elements come mainly in the form of purposefully heightened sound design (lots of abrupt noises, floorboard creaks, and garbled dialogue placed high in the mix), as well as the aforementioned visual imagery of the house as a living organism of some kind. The lack of a conventional score, too, creates a rigorous sense of claustrophobia which accentuates the odd behavioral choices of the characters.
During the film's early stretch, one gets the sense that Aronofsky's undeniable virtuoso filmic techniques may actually be informing the narrative, but this too, proves to be a cheat. Instead, what gradually becomes clear is that Aronofsky isn't interested in psychology, human behavior, or even creating a situation in which the audience's shock can be registered as meaningful. Instead, the film unravels--at first somewhat casually, then in a more unintentionally laughable way--even as Aronofsky makes it clear how diligently he paid attention during Old Testament class.
For all it's weirdness and willingness to buck convention, Mother! feels like a desperate experiment announcing itself as little more than a meta deconstruction of the artist's ego coupled with Biblical allegory. There's auteur worship, the way women pacify men's supposed genius by playing the muse, the destructive nature of fandom, the collapse of society, the fall of man, and yes, a Cain and Abel subplot complete with thudding Jesus metaphor. Which all begs the question; who cares to unravel such allusions when the human beings onscreen are simply chess pieces in Aronofsky's cosmic game of Paradise Lost? Lawrence certainly huffs, puffs, and hyperventilates onscreen admirably, but by design, she's playing an intentionally passive archetype. Bardem broods, sulks, and occasionally turns on the charm, but he also feels somewhat lost here; especially during the final stretch where Aronofsky cranks up the nightmarish visions of a civilization gone to hell. Only Harris and Pfeiffer seem to be enjoying themselves as the unwanted house guests, winking and vamping with real gusto. Their scenes are spiked with an almost Brian DePalma-tinged flair for camp, something Aronofsky seems generally afraid to follow through on tonally. Meanwhile, his clear affinity for Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel--with the inherent absurdity of random strangers coming in and out of the house at will while acting very strangely--is only superficial, as Mother! never leans into the absurdist premise in order to unleash its satirical potential.
If Mother! is meant to be read as a pure pitch black comedy, then Aronofsky may indeed be a genius for so thoroughly throwing everyone off the scent. However, while he must be fully aware of the inherent silliness of his conceit, nothing in the film (or his back catalog) suggests that he's simply wanking off the audience. In interviews, he's suggested that the screenplay was born out of confusion related to natural disasters and human societal violence which kept him up at night, which leads one to infer that he wants us to take all of this nonsense seriously. Unfortunately, the film's meta elements of the God-like creator molding, shaping, and then destroying his muse for the sake of all humanity comes across like an unironic form of self flagellation; the case of no one in the room having the balls to tell the artist that not all ideas are good ideas. In reality, Mother! is akin to Bardem's supposed beautiful poem etched in a flurry of emotions after realizing he was to become a father--all sound and fury, signifying nothing.