mother! is unmistakably an Aronofsky film. The intimacy with which he filmed and staged the entire production contains, unassailably, his signature. His best work comes when he grapples with things he wants to make sense of. You find it in his under-appreciated Noah, and in my favorite, The Fountain. In those films he reaches for something beyond his natural grasp and attempts to deconstruct it via narrative examination. Where he perhaps falters in mother! is in trying to stretch his inquiry and sense of helpless anguish around too wide a field of study. He includes such a breadth of ideas that as the film leaps towards its close, the constructed focus blurs. The film, however, is audacious enough to remain compelling to the very last shot.
The Production: 4/5
“You give, and you give, and you give. It’s just never enough.”
A couple living in the secluded comfort of their country home are disturbed by a visitor (Ed Harris). They offer him shelter for the night, and while the visit was unexpected, the man of the house (Javier Bardem), is besotted by the visitor. His wife (Jennifer Lawrence), who has been carefully renovating their home, is unsettled but ultimately deferent to the husband she adores. The visitor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives the next morning, followed soon after by their two angry sons, and soon the idyllic life of the couple is run awry with strange people getting out of hand.
mother! establishes the walls of its world quickly. The home, which serves as a key and foundational character itself, is imbued with great warmth. That warmth begins to dull as the many characters, none of whom are ever referred to by name, treat it with great disrespect. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) slowly unravels the tranquil lives and loving relationship of the central couple (Bardem & Lawrence). The camera follows Lawrence tightly as strange events unfold in her home as she is rendered as little more than a helpless witness. We become her, unable to understand the odd behaviors of the socially rude and unpleasant characters running roughshod over her while her husband, rapt by the many visitors’ adoration, fails to understand the impact upon her in their own home.
Mother! derives its strength from Lawrence’s intimate performance. As her world is unsettled, so too do we become unsettled. Aronofsky’s direction anchors the entire picture on Lawrence’s character. And the film, or rather our experience in the world he has crafted, is predicated on our attempt to understand what is happening and why. All the while, we also become absorbed by the unusual and irrational events Lawrence’s character is surrounded by and subjected to.
The divided reaction to mother! is not unexpected. The cryptic outing was marketed as something entirely more traditional in the horror/thriller realm. But audiences found themselves presented instead with something entirely more elusive, unpredictable, and lofty in allegory and symbolism. It would be easy to defend mother! if that switch had been a flawless surprise, but it isn’t. The tale is, for me, the story of mother earth beaten and belittled while symbolic representation of man’s entire history and religious permutations, play out. The film establishes these tenets but often paints outside those lines, becoming clear that what we are seeing is really something deeply personal and resonant for the director himself. It’s as if we’re reading a great poem for the first time as interpreted by the poem’s greatest fan. Interpretation of art can be deeply personal, and it’s okay that the film bends toward the more cryptic interpretation as the works originator see it. But the ability for the audience to interpret, navigate, and understand what the story is really about seems less important than Aronofsky getting it all off his chest.
mother! is unmistakably an Aronofsky film. The intimacy with which he filmed and staged the entire production contains, unassailably, his signature. His best work comes when he grapples with things he wants to make sense of. You find it in his under-appreciated Noah, and in my favorite, The Fountain. In those films he reaches for something beyond his natural grasp and attempts to deconstruct it via narrative examination. Where he perhaps falters in mother! is in trying to stretch his inquiry and sense of helpless anguish around too wide a field of study (the history of everything, up through man’s abject deconstruction and unforgivable plunder of the world around us). He includes such a breadth of ideas that as the film leaps towards its close, the constructed focus blurs. The film, however, is audacious enough to remain compelling to the very last shot.
Performances are flawless. Lawrence is stunning, appearing in just about every scene and shot, she exudes a susceptibility and an increasing loss of control, and connectedness with her husband, that we become haunted by the chaos surrounding her. She is by turns fragile and hardened by the harrowing experiences, becoming a stranger in her own world, carrying that sense of disconnectedness in her expressions and movements. Javier Bardem is fascinating as the adoration-obsessed husband. He is never malevolent, yet he appears at times like the villain even though he is never villainous. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a brilliant supporting performance, as does the eminently watchable Ed Harris. They meander so selfishly into Lawrence’s world, initially as socially rude, but evolve into something more harmful and worrisome as time progresses.
Aronofsky’s art-house approach subverts the scary house premise and while I can sympathize with those who level criticisms of pretentiousness at the film, I can’t agree. What mother! is to me is something expressive and bold–a controlled chaos of ideas and expression that grabbed me from the opening moments and carried me to the haunting end. Even when it falters, the gamble taken is something to celebrate. We crave original ideas but tend to spurn them if they don’t conform to our personal desires for how those original ideas are explored. That’s not a criticism of those who did not like mother!, on the contrary, I think the divided reaction means that Aronofsky did something right. The final third of the film will be where the film will either grip or lose you. It ramps up the symbolism and metaphor to such a frenzied degree that it will leave no doubt as to what Aronofsky’s ultimate intention and originating sentiment was. You will either agree to go along for that ride, or reject its message or approach. Or perhaps both.
3D Rating: NA
Shot in 16mm, the look of mother! is wonderfully organic, filled with grain, texture, and an innate cinematic feel. Generally, tones are warm through most of the film, taking a colder, greyer turn toward the end of the film until the climax bursts with brighter colors again. With the great talents of Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, mother! is a beautiful film that takes us through the unending halls of the house with fluidity. Light hits at just the right angles as the camera maneuvers around Jennifer Lawrence, capturing fine details, dust in the light streams, and every crack in the walls and floor.
Aurally, with its available Dolby Atmos soundtrack (which presents as 7.1 for those not Atmos equipped), is an entirely immersive experience. What begins with a general sense of quiet becomes an experience of sound effects, rumblings, and eventual chaos that fills the speakers with disquieting worshippers, riots, wars, death, famine, filth, death and destructions within the walls of the house. Without a score, mother! is an interesting emotional experience. I would have loved to hear what Aronofsky’s frequent composer collaborator, Clint Mansell, could have come up with. But as it is, the sounds of an orchestra are not there to inform or nudge us, and what we feel comes only from the staging, performances, and the use of quiet and sound. The audio here captures everything perfectly.
Special Features: 2.5/5
mother! the downward spiral (29:51): This special feature (referred to as the making of mother! on the case) shares director Darren Aronofsky discussing his approach to the experience he wanted to deliver. He and others also discuss how challenging the film is to quantify and explain, as well as their own interpretations of it. We also get some behind the scenes footage of the rehearsal process. This is a worthwhile 30 minutes, with the examination of the fight scene between the two brothers being intense and interesting as a microcosm of the film’s shoot.
the makeup fx of mother! (6:45): A look at several of the film’s make-up effects, from toilet creatures and robot babies, to cremated and ash bodies.
mother! offers a bleak view of humanity and existence and isn’t meant to leave us with answers or hope, but rather a need to reflect on both where, and who we are as a species. The film will not be for everyone. I found it fascinating and beautifully staged and constructed with performances worthy of watching. It helps that I don’t disagree with the overarching point director Aronofsky was trying to make. Others won’t have the patience for the approach taken. A calibrated sense of expectation for what this film really is about will help. mother! most certainly is not a horror film in the conventional sense, and most certainly isn’t about something scary happening in a secluded house in the way we’ve seen before. Wonderfully controversial with precious little middle-ground for reactions.