To watch Mother! is to wonder what’s going on, and whether Darren Aronofsky will be merciful enough to actually tell us. The writer-director, whose narratives are so rife with ambiguity, while his touch and tonality are anything but, opens his new thriller just inches from an immolating woman’s visage. Her face is actively burning, and the flesh around her eyes singes and peels away. Cut to Javier Bardem groping a weird, asymmetrical jewel, and we see a dilapidated country house in turn become gradually new again. A CGI sunbeam creeps across a living room, renovating and cleaning as it goes.
So when Jennifer Lawrence wakes up and there’s a sense of unease in her marriage — firstly because her husband (Bardem) is not in bed next to her, and second, third, and fourthly because his affection is distracted and rote in the way only a Hollywood-writer-man-with-a-secret’s can be — we already know there’s something up. Then, Ed Harris comes to their door. The couple lives in the center of a remote, unkempt field from what we can tell, and the unlikely visitor is disturbing in that winsome way Ed Harris so often is. Bardem offers him a room for the night, no questions asked. The next day, Michelle Pfeiffer, the wife of the strange visitor who did not say he had a wife, darkens their door as well. (Pfeiffer will at least get to have some fun.)
If this plot recitation sounds like shtick, I’ll cop to that, but Aronofsky has given us a movie driven by often bewildering addition. And then this happens. And then this. And then Jennifer Lawrence has an attack of nausea and drinks a mysterious tonic. And then everyone is suddenly interested in that jewel Bardem was squeezing earlier. And then the house’s ancient furnace leaps to life with no provocation.
There are no names. There are no pauses for in-scene characterization. We’re not meant to know any of these people on the level of personality or development. We are meant to feel through Lawrence’s character and wonder in sustained panic about the intentions of her husband and the squatters. She’s having a sort of hostess’ nightmare when all she really wants is to keep fixing up the house and catch more than a stolen glance from her spouse.
It’s all very Stephen King, but even more, it’s very Poe. The house is a living, but doomed, organism of some kind, reminiscent of one a family called Usher inhabited. It responds to the various touches and whims of Lawrence and Bardem like a mood ring, but it suffers wounds as well. Its nooks, crannies and bric-a-brac are all symbolic. Lawrence dresses in white. Harris drinks from a special flask of his own brewing. There’s some kind of hidden wine cellar that could easily be stocked with Amontillado.
It’s almost honorable how traditional of a horror story Mother! appears at its outset, right down to the camera as unreliable narrator. Its unforgiving closeness to Lawrence and her views of the people in her life creates uncertainty above all else. Is any of this real? Who’s pulling the strings? The fact that Bardem is an older writer secluded with his young, too-dutiful wife is conspicuous enough. Lawrence just craves a chance to connect and to understand. Dear god, who art in the upstairs study, will the audience feel her pain.
Lawrence acts gamely as she’s put through a housewife’s version of The Revenant. Her performance could be note-perfect — it’s certainly strenuous — but we never really know in what key the rest of the orchestra is playing. In this house, she’s both martyr and goddess. And while those roles lend themselves to plenty of operatic acting moments, it’s hard to recognize the character as anything more than a vessel for either tension or symbolism. And, sure, she’s a terrific vessel. We feel her terror, rage and confusion as her home becomes a revolving-door menagerie that stimulates the husband and only torments her. But there are barriers to a movie that spends so much time trying to make your skin crawl and then suddenly insists you look at the whole ordeal as a metaphor. The place where the gut and the brain connect starves throughout. In other words, it’s hard for me to imagine the person who walks out of Mother! excited by it, or who would respond with anything resembling fandom. The point at which the movie turns into pure allegory for faith, creation and organized religion is Aronofsky exploring some of his favorite themes — particularly those from Noah — on his own wild (but contained) canvas. His devotion to the figurative, though, has out-kicked the literal’s coverage. The first half of the movie, seen through lens of the second half, doesn’t cohere.
Mother! becomes mostly worthwhile after it’s over, as a thought experiment. With full Aronofsky intention, it’s largely unpleasant to watch. The director is still making challenging, provoking art frame by fame, but his adversarial relationship with what an audience wants, and maybe needs, may have reached a tipping point. There’s a reason our podcast calls out Requiem For A Dream as the epitome of good-bad films. Mother! is closer to bad-bad, somehow predictable and inscrutable at the same time, like The Hours meets Melancholia, but with cruel intentions closer to Nocturnal Animals. Aronofsky seeks to put Lawrence’s protagonist through the wringer while never actually giving her the reigns of the movie. And that’s almost unforgivable. He understands and fully renders a kind of hysteria and torment brought on by male power and insensitivity without actually, ultimately siding with the victim.
Granted, the end game is the whole game for Aronofsky. The auteur has made a career out of nudging characters toward self-destruction until they actually start to believe their fortunes lie in death. That fatalism works best when a character’s deep, realistic desires line up with dark destiny. Stunningly and evenly executed in Black Swan and The Wrestler, the characters have fates, but they’re also at war with their own standards and the standards of their strange subcultures. Even in lesser films, most Aronofsky protagonists get to belt out their climactic and pyrrhic show-stopper. Mother! fits in perfectly, with the caveat that Lawrence’s character may not have that key ingredient of free will. Magnetism to destruction is tragic poetry; slavery is just tragic.
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Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.