Written and Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Ed Harris
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You give, and you give, and you give. It's just never enough."
Throughout history, many artists have been obsessed with lionizing the process of making art, but none did so with the fierceness (and perhaps even piety) of the Romantic poets, most of whom fancied themselves as shamans of the human soul, delivering sublime insight to the masses through their words and works. Percy Shelley went so far as to call them “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and likened words to sparks that could incite intimate revelations and worldly revolutions. I couldn’t help but think of all this as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! unfolded on-screen: while this is a film packed with layers of allegorical meaning and lends itself to various interpretations, there’s little doubt its director is at least preoccupied with creation, specifically the absolute torment involved in crafting a piece art. Shelley’s spark becomes a full on conflagration here, one that literally consumes the creator and eventually forges something beautiful out of absolute, chaotic horror, forcing the audience to endure the process before having them ponder if it’s worth it. And if mother! itself is any indication, the answer is…maybe?
To be sure, there’s something to admire in the relative boldness of the film, which is unlike any other recent multiplex horror. Its setup is familiar enough, though a cryptic framing device involving a woman being burned alive as a man (Javier Bardem) looks on certainly puts it off-kilter immediately. We watch as a house is miraculously restored from a fire, complete with a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence, credited as “mother”) turning over in bed, calling out to her off-screen lover, who turns out to be the same man from the opening scene. We learn that these two are married and have been living in his (or “His,” if the credits are any indication, inviting obvious religious connotations) childhood home, now in need of restoration after a fire. She is doting, so much so that she’s all but restoring the house for him all by herself as he toils away with a wicked case of writer’s block. As she paints, she notices something is amiss with the house, sensing a literal heart beating within its walls—and then there’s suddenly a knock at the door.
A stranger (Ed Harris, credited simply as “man”) has arrived claiming to be a doctor in need of a place to stay after mistaking the couple’s home for a bed and breakfast. The husband is all too eager to invite him in to stay, much to his wife’s surprise and trepidation: how can he be so trusting, she wonders, oblivious that this is only the first of many intrusions into her home as strangers begin to pour in, including the unknown man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, “woman”) and children, all of whom converge to hash out their issues right there in her home—in bloody fashion. Remarkably, this isn’t the film’s inciting incident—Aronofsky is going a bit off the board with a more free-floating structure here, so it’s one of many bizarre occurrences that tears away at “mother’s” sanity.
For a brief moment, mother! feels like Aronofsky’s Polanski riff. Marketing as pegged it as an echo of Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s much more in line with Repulsion during its first half, when these strangers begin to crowd in on this poor woman’s home, much to her annoyance and complete dismay. Aronofsky’s tight framing heightens the claustrophobia of the scene, recalling the paranoiac terrors of Polanski’s suffocating apartment film, right down to a woman being victimized psychologically (and, eventually, physically).
During these scenes, mother! is one of the most uncomfortable movies ever made, if only because there are few things more terrifying than unwanted people poking and prodding around your home. These guests arrive innocuously enough, but both Harris and Pfeiffer toss in a couple of perceptibly disconcerting tics—they’re a bit too forward, particularly the latter, who grills her host about her sex life and her desire (or lack thereof) to have children. mother! is perhaps just a half-step away from playing out as some absurdist black comedy a la Neighbors (1981), with these houseguests from hell terrorizing this couple in the most irritating manner possible. My anxiety genuinely heightened with each new intrusion, as Aronofsky perfectly captures just how aggravating it can be to watch people invade your private space.
But it’s also clear his goals are much loftier than this, particularly as the events grow more obviously unreal. Without spoiling the details—mother! thrives on its cryptic plot, after all—suffice it to say nothing about the situation adds up, least of all the husband’s reaction to the events unfolding around him. Aronofsky exploits Bardem’s natural shiftiness to its full effect: no matter how comforting he might be towards his wife, you can’t help but wonder what his motives are. He’s magnanimous to an unsettling degree towards these holy terrors who upend his home and upset his wife. Just how can he be so warm towards them while ignoring this woman who obviously loves him so much? And what’s the deal with her various, vaguely supernatural freakouts involving strange visions throughout the house? Just what’s lurking in the bowels of the place, intoning her to uncover secret passages and hidden rooms?
Aronofsky provides some oblique answers as even more bizarre events unfold in the second half, at which point mother! abandons all pretense of operating on human logic or reality. Graduating from Polanski’s warped, mind-bending horrors to Buñuel’s brand of allegorical surrealism, the film grows into a cacophonic, apocalyptic nightmare for its main character. Even if I were disposed to spoiling details, I’m not sure doing so would offer much in the way of clarification without recapping the entire film altogether. mother! escalates well beyond those typical domestic anxieties, spiraling way out of control as its title character endures horrific torments, with Aronofsky’s unflinching gaze refusing to soften them.
Violence becomes both transgressive and transformative all at once as some kind of point comes into focus. You start to see the realization in Lawrence’s increasingly terrified eyes, allowing her to fulfill her role as audience surrogate until the end. Throughout mother!, we traipse alongside her, observing virtually every move she makes, most of them captured in close-up shots that accentuate her bewilderment, her rage, and, ultimately, her haunting recognition that she’s an empty muse. By the end of the film, you realize Aronofsky has boldly evoked the manner of a passion play by subjecting this woman to such tortures: suddenly, those close-ups feel less functional and more a symbolic connection to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and all the Biblical martyrdom that entails.
Even this might be a bit of sly misdirection, however, as the film’s final revelation casts some doubt about just who is actually suffering here. Despite the title, mother! might not be her passion play, but rather her husband’s, eventually depicted here as a tortured artist whose work is paramount, even if it comes at the expense of other people’s suffering. It’s his suffering too because to create is to suffer: you’re forced to kill your darlings, face rabid fans, watch haywire story ideas grow beyond your control, interloping publishers, and, ultimately, burn through those you love in the pursuit of absolute Truth in art.
While mother! opens itself up to various readings (particularly those positioning it as a religious allegory, what with the implications surrounding the character names and the heaven/hell imagery), this notion of creation feels most obvious, almost to the point of feeling heavy-handed. That it’s also in the service of lionizing the tortured genius motif makes it a bit off-putting, as those biblical connotations heighten this act of creation into something grandiose and spiritual. Pain is part and parcel with this hallowed process, one that turns the author’s life—particularly his relationships—into a crucible that can only yield art that’s been infused with blood and tears. At its core, mother! feels like a cautionary tale warning about the horrors of engaging with creative types, a reading that takes on a semi-biographical tenor given Aronofsky’s real-life relationship with Lawrence. I can only imagine their conversations lately.
To be sure, there’s also an element of self-loathing to be gleaned from such a reading. I’m not entirely sure Aronofsky lets himself off the hook here, even if mother! doesn’t completely condemn Bardem’s poet. You sense that Romantic-era glorification of The Artist achieving his higher purpose at any costs. Maybe Aronofsky is reckoning with that and engaging in a bout of introspection about how artists objectify and fetishize women as muses, allowing themselves to tear out their beloved’s hearts and paint with their blood. Maybe hell isn’t other people, as the film initially suggests; maybe hell is living with yourself and your own deranged obsessions that inspire an endless cycle of anguish and ecstasy, of pain and beauty. None of these can be mutually exclusive for an artist, who must invite in the entire spectrum of the human condition and shape it into something impossibly beautiful.
Whether or not it’s all worthwhile remains up for question: despite the technical bravura guiding it, mother! sometimes feels too tedious and meandering for its own good. Something about that is also weirdly fitting, too, because there’s no mistaking this as the genuine, unfiltered musings of an artist in search of meaning. Such journeys don’t exactly lend themselves to straight lines, and, if nothing else, Aronofsky’s willingness to lay bare himself and his obsessions is commendable. Depending on how you take mother!, that willingness will reveal either a self-aggrandizing artist upholding centuries-old depictions of creation or a self-loathing man facing his own anxieties about the intersection of art and intimacy.
Maybe it’s Aronofsky’s self-flagellating Passion play after all, wherein he wrestles with himself and his own demons. The fact that I can’t say for sure who wins speaks volumes about his headspace here, which has yielded his most ambiguous and confrontational film about obsession and perfection so far. If The Wrestler and Black Swan were his ruminations on these subjects, then mother! is his vision quest right into their heart. What he finds isn’t always pleasant, nor is it always completely lucid; it is, however, the unmistakable, distinct wail of an artist pouring himself right onto the screen, making it audacious, unpleasant, and indelible all at once as he truly confronts the toll that perfection takes on others.
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