mother! (lowercase intended), the latest from American cinema’s only mainstream auteur, Darren Aronofsky, is a film designed to stir-up controversy. It wants a little too desperately to be the most talked about film of the year. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen,” heralds the picture’s extensive Twitter campaign. “You’ll pay for the whole seat, but you’ll only need THE EDGE.” The trailers stop just short of having Aronofsky come on screen, point at the audience, and proclaim “I’m gonna scare the hell outta you!” like Stephen King in Maximum Overdrive. And while mother! is sure to generate the controversy it desires, audiences probably won’t be talking about it the way Aronofsky probably intends.
Jennifer Lawrence plays “mother”, Javier Bardem plays her husband, “Him”—there are no names in this film. The two live intentionally isolated in a dilapidated manor deep in the woods. He, a poet, spends his days locked away in his study trying to break free of writer’s block while she does renovations. Their relationship is loving but fragile, quickly strained when a stranger (Ed Harris) arrives at their door, apparently lost. Lawrence is unnerved by the stranger, who her husband invites to stay as long as he likes. Things unravel further when the stranger is followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who walks in like she owns the place and berates “mother” for not yet having bared children. As more uninvited guests arrive events spiral further out of control than anyone watching will predict, but to say anything else would rob mother! of its purpose.
mother! is a two hour nightmare that capitalizes on every fear you’ve ever had about being trapped somewhere, be it in an awkward situation, a riot, or the midst of a home invasion. Jennifer Lawrence might be derided for a performance that vacillates between doe-eyed confusion and shrieking, but I was with “mother” through the whole movie. The film puts directly in her shoes, stuck somewhere that’s grown increasingly uncomfortable, unable to understand what’s happening to you or why.
Darren Aronofsky makes allegorical films, it’s just what he does, but to what effect differs from film to film. The Wrestler and Black Swan—speaking comparatively to Aronofsky’s other work—take a lighter hand while his more…ambitious?…fare like The Fountain paint a portrait of the artist as a pompous try-hard. mother! falls closer to the latter. There are themes in here, damn it, and you’re going to appreciate them. With that in mind, I’d besiege anyone thinking of paying to see this movie to take the above into account. If you find it hard to make heads or tails of analogy or symbolism, mother! is going to feel like a miserable, stressful waste of your time and money. It might feel that way even if you can successfully interpret it, though my own jury is out on whether that’s possible. The film is a two hour allegory, but what you’re supposed to take from the it is all too nebulous, because the film is intentionally non-specific and opaque so you can insert your own meaning.
The picture hits you over the head with religious comparisons (more on that later), but I’ve seen takes claiming it’s a parable about idol worship, feminism, introversion, and the environment. You make the call. In this critic’s opinion, that’s lazy. If you’re going to make a movie that you want people to decipher, then the end goal needs to exist; this is not a choose your own adventure.
There are two intended ways that you can interpret mother! The first is as a fairly straight-forward biblical allegory, retelling both Genesis and loosely the story of Christ. The second is as a metaphorical biography of a secluded, selfish, but passionate artist destroying the person who cares about him most. Bardem represents both God and the artist, and I’ve no doubt Aronofsky envisions himself in both roles. Darren Aronofsky clearly does a lot of meditating on the effects of his art on those closest to him and it’s commendable in a way for him to make a picture so ruthless in its introspection, but parts—the latter third, especially—border on masturbatory self-flagellation. Aronofsky feels guilty and we all get to hear about it.
The audience, at least the one I sat with, will likely leave mother! upset and confused and thus come to the conclusion that the picture is “bad”, so let’s talk about that. General audiences (here meaning people who don’t go see movies with the intention of writing about them) tend to assign a movie “good” or “bad” based directly on how much they enjoyed it. I did not enjoy this movie; I left the theater puzzled, frustrated, and grossed out. Consider, though, that not every film is meant to be enjoyed—you wouldn’t walk out of Schindler’s List and say “I really enjoyed that.” mother! is not an enjoyable film, but nor is it bad or pointless. It sets out to provoke an emotional response and engender conversation and succeeds. It exists to be controversial, but one can sympathize with unsuspecting audiences coming into mother! expecting something closer to the standard horror movie that was sold to them in the trailer. This is not the kind of film you unleash on people who aren’t in some way aware of what they’re getting into.
The backlash to the film’s secretive and shamelessly misleading marketing has already begun, with the Rotten Tomatoes score (while “Certified Fresh” at this point) currently in free-fall, dropping over ten percent in twenty-four hours. I think the concentrated secrecy says less about Aronofsky’s intent on shock value and more about Paramount’s lack of faith in the picture, knowing full well they wouldn’t stand a chance at making their budget back if they told us what the movie was really about. Audiences will be talking, alright, likely with warnings to stay the hell away.
Verdict: mother! is overwrought and gross but a standout performance from Jennifer Lawrence elevates one of Darren Aronofsky’s lesser outings. Still, if you want to be included in the discussion of this year in film, mother! is essential viewing.