WARNING: it’s impossible to discuss mother! without delving into spoilers. There’s nothing here that will ruin the movie for you, but I do believe that the best way to experience the film is the way I did: without knowing anything beforehand.
I haven’t seen every movie Darren Aronofsky has made, but I have to believe that Noah is his worst. The long-developed passion project only got made because of the clout Aronofsky had after his Oscar-winning 2010 film Black Swan, Noah is a movie that takes a Biblical story and mucks it up with too many flourishes, stifling any hint of what may have drawn a filmmaker like Aronofsky to such material in the first place.
Which is why I found myself surprised after seeing Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, when I realized after it was over that Aronofsky has returned to the Bible yet again. Here, however, he pares things down considerably, creating a frightening allegory about the sins of man, the fickleness of his Creator, and the cyclical nature of our history as a species that dooms us to a fate we’re not willing to accept. It’s bold and heady stuff for a horror movie, but Aronofsky gives us what is easily the most grueling, agonizing, and unpleasant mainstream viewing experience of 2017 — and I mean that in the best way possible.
Characters in the movie are not named. Jennifer Lawrence plays the young wife of a charming poet (Javier Bardem), both of whom live in a large house secluded somewhere in the country. While the poet spends most of his day seeking inspiration for his next major work, his wife busies herself with renovating the house from top to bottom. Their lives are inadvertently turned upside-down by the arrival of an elderly stranger (Ed Harris), a fan of the poet who happens upon their home and is in need of a place to stay. When his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) joins him as well, things begin to get too crowded for the young wife’s liking. But her husband, apparently basking in the admiration of two fans, allows them and more people to come to the house, turning their idyllic home into a nightmarish hell.
Watching mother!, I thought I had figured it out. It’s easy to see the film as a dissection of fame, and how rising to some degree of stardom creates a sycophantic following that can ruin any hope a person has a healthy life. At one point, as the squatters in her home begin ravaging the place, Lawrence’s character asks why they’re doing this, to which the reply is simple: “Prove we were here.” The line effectively underscores the central treatise of Aronofsky’s film regardless of your interpretation of the overall narrative: let people in, and the only thing you’ll have to show for it is scars. Fun movie.
The film also acts as a parable about celebrity relationships; specifically, couples in which one person’s success takes off to such an extent that their significant other just can’t keep up. But that take on the film falls apart somewhat in the final act, which is when Aronofsky ratchets up the intensity to 11.
mother! is broken up quite neatly into three distinct acts, with the first two being a very dark comedy about what is essentially a home invasion. While there are horror elements to this part of the story, including some would-be jump scares, there’s nothing here that should truly terrify any members of the audience. The third act is where Aronofsky’s mission statement comes into clearer — or, likely for some, blurrier — focus, and will make or break the movie for most audiences. This is an audacious movie for a major studio to release, and Paramount must get credit for their handling of what’s essentially an unmarketable film.
Shot on 16mm, which is par for the course for Aronofsky, the movie’s photography focuses heavily on close-ups of Lawrence. Matthew Libatique’s (Black Swan, Iron Man) photography is grimy and claustrophobic, and when combined with the sparse production design, makes it easy to focus on the performances and tension of the piece. mother! does not let up during its roughly two-hour runtime, and when the credits finally roll, you’ll breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief.
Performances here are outstanding, with Pfeiffer and Bardem deserving special mention. Pfeiffer is ferocious here, digging into the part with relish but never going so far as to chew on the scenery. Bardem uses his good looks to sway us into liking him, even as his actions become increasingly erratic and it becomes more and more difficult to believe that he has his wife’s best interests at heart. Harris also delivers typically strong work, though this is not going to be a performance for which he’s remembered. Same goes for Lawrence, who is fine but never as spectacular as in other films.
Will mother! find an audience? Probably not. It’s too esoteric to have mainstream appeal, so it’s best chances lie in the arthouses, where fans of the director’s previous works will have to decide if mother! makes a profit. While I’ve never felt completely sold on Aronofsky — I love some of his movies and despise others —mother! is one of his stronger works, and shows that he works best with smaller budgets, smaller casts, and big, big ideas.