mother! **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Darren Aronofsky.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Mother), Javier Bardem (Him), Ed Harris (Man), Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), Brian Gleeson (Younger Brother), Domhnall Gleeson (Oldest Son), Jovan Adepo (Cupbearer), Emily Hampshire (Fool), Stephen McHattie (Zealot), Kristen Wiig (Herald).
Director Darren Aronofsky doesn’t do things half way – when he goes for something, he goes all in. This approach doesn’t always work – his Biblical epic Noah was a little bit of a misfire for him, and as much as I liked The Fountain, I still don’t know if that film actually works on the level Aronofsky wanted it to. His latest film, mother!, has already become notorious with at least as many people hating the film as loving it – and that’s just among critics – the consensus among moviegoers seems to be that most weren’t interested at all, and those that were, hate the film. I completely and totally understand that as mother is wildly unconventional, and goes to some insane places, that most viewers just don’t want to go. The film is a biblical allegory of course (Aronofsky has really become one of the few directors so willing to directly engage religion in his films) – and it goes for broke from the beginning. If you want something more conventional, there is literally every other movie playing at your local multiplex right now. I am amazed and delighted this film got this wide of a release, even if most audiences seem to hate it. This is one of those films that you may love, you may hate – but you won’t forget. It will be talked about for years.
May I also say, good for Jennifer Lawrence – who is one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now, for throwing caution to the wind and starring in this film? I like Lawrence as an actress, although I’ve been starting to think that she needed something to break her out of the type of roles she was doing – which were starting to grow stale (there were diminishing returns to her performances in David O. Russell movies for example – despite the three Oscar noms she scored for them). This is a different type of role for her – one that at first seems rather passive, but eventually gets more unhinged. In the film, she plays the younger wife of a “greater writer” (Javier Bardem) – and the pair live in the secluded house where he’s lived his whole life. A fire destroyed the interior – and she’s doing the work to restore it (“I want to build a paradise” she says in one of the films more thudding obvious metaphor lines). They seem to be happy in their childless existence, even if he cannot write anymore. Then a man shows up on their doorstep (Ed Harris) – saying he thought it was a bed and breakfast. Bardem invites him to stay anyway, much to Lawrence’s chagrin. The next day, Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. These uninvited guests make themselves too much at home, place themselves too much into their lives, ask invasive questions, and don’t listen to anything Lawrence says. Then they’re two bickering adult sons show up to argue about the will. Things turn violent, more people show up, etc. and things spiral downwards. Just when it seems everything has come to an end, the cycle repeats itself.
You can take the film on a literal level in that this is the life the younger wives or older, temperamental “genius” artists have to put up with – that they are never wholly yours, and you are subject to their whims (the fact that Lawrence – 27 – started dating Aronofsky – 48 – while making this film is more than a little weird). The Biblical parallels are also there, and pretty hard to miss unless you actively want to miss them (a lot of people seem to want that). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of God to show him this way – or to reframe the creation the way this film in its final act. But it’s a wild ride.
Aronofsky matches his outlandish material with outlandish style. There are a lot of close-ups in the film – which seems focused on Lawrence’s face throughout, often with long shots as she storms through the house. The sound design in the film is brilliantly over-the-top, as is pretty much everything else. It’s a testament to Lawrence that she keeps the film together – like everyone else in the film, she is playing less a character than a symbol, but she holds the center wonderfully. Bardem is great as the almost ever smiling center of attention – proclaiming his love for Lawrence, while unable to turn away his acolytes, ever. I loved Michelle Pfeiffer as well, showing up to ruin everything. There are smaller roles that are also well played – especially by Stephen McHattie and Kristen Wiig – who show late in the proceedings.
Listen, I know most people are going to hate mother! Most viewers want a cleaner narrative than this, and don’t really want one long metaphor to stand in for a narrative. They want something less weird than this – more linear, more conventional. I get that, and I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with wanting that from your movies – especially, when you head to the multiplex on a Saturday night, thinking you may see a horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby (an obvious touchstone for this film) – and get this instead. But for me, I admired every crazy moment of mother! – which starts out crazy, and just get weirder from there. You should see it if for no other reason than you’re unlikely to see anything like it ever again.