‘mother!’ Film Review
If nothing else, the most confounding film of the year.
It’s not often anymore that a film gets reviewed as both ‘brilliant’ and a ‘terrible waste of time’. Nor do you often see critics and writers scrambling to classify a film’s genre, calling it a psychological thriller, a biblical allegory, a failed feminist tract and a very bleak comedy. I wandered out of the Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in a bit of a shell-shocked daze. I hated it, I loved it, I resisted it, I wanted to see it again, I wanted to forget about it. It’s such a chaotic concoction of styles, themes and tones that the cumulative effect is likely to leave you with no idea how you feel about it.
Does that mean it’s worth seeing?
Leading up to its release, the film was shrouded in secrecy (an impressive feat for this day and age). Its director, Darren Aronofsky, said he wanted the film to be released like a grenade thrown into the audience. Given the film’s aggressively art-house approach and its wide release, it does feel like the filmic equivalent of a bomb going off. That said, it begins familiarly enough. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up and calls out, ‘Baby?’ to her partner, Him (Javier Bardem) who’s downstairs on the front porch trying to get some inspiration. He’s a famous poet struggling with writer’s block, she spends all day painting the house she refurbished. She takes a great deal of pride in this house.
Aronofsky’s bizarre project probably wouldn’t exist without the presence of Lawrence, and the film certainly indulges in its lead actress – she’s in almost every frame of the film. The camera is either close up on her face, behind her shoulder, or shot from her point of view. The plot, which starts out like a skewed version of the marital games in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), quickly devolves into something more harrowing like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), before it goes past the point of comparisons and into utter chaos. Throughout it, Lawrence gives the only grounding performance. Probably one of the best performances of the year, Lawrence affects a look of distraught confusion that elevates above performance and becomes a look you identify with. As the house begins to bleed and the walls crumble, it’s one that you cling to. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoots the film so you go through this with her – you don’t simply watch it happening to her.
It’s when Man (Ed Harris) and later his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up that things begin to slide into something more sinister and surreal. Man is a huge admirer of the poet’s work and is invited to stay indefinitely, which seems odd only to us, and to Mother. When Man’s wife, Woman (a magnificently serpentine Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, the men go out on walks while the women stay in.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be trying to figure the film out as it plays. Is it some sort of feminist critique on the artifice of domestic bliss? With biblical overtones, is Aronofsky critiquing the story of creation or is he liberally borrowing from it, constructing a story about how we treat the planet? Isn’t Bardem roughly the same age as Aronofsky, who’s dating Lawrence? Is this some kind of surreal, autobiographical vanity project?
All of its allegories and metaphors and themes either feel too familiar, or not quite developed enough to take centre stage. They come and go like the visitors to the house, who increase in number at an alarming rate. There’s a brutal fight where a face is smashed into a vase, a particularly rowdy wake for the deceased and Mother can’t seem to get people to stop sitting on the damn laundry sink, no matter how many times she tells them it isn’t stable. It’s such a visceral film, with harshly confronting violence, booming sound effects and raw, emotional performances that you’ll miss the point if you’re trying to figure out what’s going on.
Trust your gut. If you hate it, you’re not alone. If you think it’s a masterpiece, you’re still in fine company. But, if all it does is make you feel something, outrage or irritation or a bottomless dread, it’s difficult to deny the film has power. Suddenly, that silly exclamation point in the title makes a whole lot more sense.