mother! September 20, 2017
2 Hrs., 1 Min.
n the months leading up to the release of mother! (2017), writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature, details about the film have been scarce. First came the unsettling promotional poster, in which the film’s leading actress, Jennifer Lawrence, dreamily stood before us in a virginal white dress and offered her freshly ripped-out heart to whoever would take it. With the artwork came an enigmatic logline: “A couple’s relationship is tested when
These ambiguous handouts only heightened the intrigue. All that could be deciphered was that the film would be a star-studded, quasi-home invasion thriller, and that Aronofsky’s decision to so thoroughly dress the movie’s post-production in question marks and dead ends was simply his way of telling audiences that they’d just have to wait until the premiere to find out what the movie was really about. Given that Aronofsky’s last similarly small-scale project, the horrific, hallucinogenic psychological thriller Black Swan (2010), stands as one of the best films of the decade, most expected mother! to be comparably engrossing — and comparably accessible.
But in the days following its Sept. 15 wide release, reception has been split. While most critics have either loved or hated the film — Rotten Tomatoes is a deluge of writers calling it a modern masterpiece or one of the worst movies of the year — the public has been pretty unanimous in their hatred of the movie. According to CinemaScore, the market research firm that surveys audiences about their moviegoing experiences, the populace has predominantly given mother! an “F” grade, a score that’s burdened fewer than 20 features in a 40-year timespan. Predictably, the movie tanked at the box office, raking in just $7.5 million in its domestic opening weekend.
If anything, though, this push-pull in opinion is a testament to what Aronofsky’s trying to accomplish with the film: first to make a thematically shape-shifting, cerebral horror opera to be discussed long into the night, second to make a gut-punch of a thriller that leaves us wobbly and sensorily exhausted. He doesn’t expect us to like mother!. He expects us to respond to it, to try to decipher the meaning of the film for ourselves all the while rolling about in its idiosyncratic style. What we’re left with is among the most daring, original films of the year (and the decade), allegorically rich and a visceral and visual KO. It’s not for everyone: the dependence on violence as an aesthetic feature is robust, and the symbolism, ever-present, might seem heavy-handed and masturbatory on Aronofsky’s part.
But viewers looking for a stylistic and thematic challenge akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) will be enthralled by mother!. With so many wide releases presenting themselves as exercises in sheer escapism, it’s a rarity to walk into a downtown Regal and find ourselves confronted by a film so disturbing and so challenging. It’s an arthouse movie that’s somehow inserted itself into the mainstream via Paramount, and such is a major achievement. To paraphrase L7's frontwoman, Donita Sparks, the act of infiltrating the masses is a subversive act in itself. And Aronofsky and his band of actors get away with it, with a wink no less.
In mother!, nothing is ever as it seems: first it’s a marital drama, then a home invasion thriller, then a descent into anarchy, and, eventually, hell. Consistent, though, is its centering of itself around an unnamed married couple. Listed as Him (Javier Bardem) and Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) in the movie’s closing credits, we initially see a union of tranquility that’s perhaps too tranquil. The twosome is living in a fantastically remote, crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere, not doing much else besides sleeping, eating, and pretending to enjoy one another's company.
Him is an acclaimed poet suffering from paralyzing writer’s block; Mother is a pronouncedly nubile 20-something with little to do except sheepishly dote. Though they won’t admit it to themselves, the relationship is running on empty — we’re partial to believing that maybe Mother met Him when she was a rebellious art student but got in over her head when she decided to actually marry the man. Him only seems to keep her around as an ornament.
But in mother!, we don’t see them interact as a conventional couple for long. Fifteen or so minutes into the film, their serene existence is interrupted by a stranger billed in the credits as “Man” (Ed Harris). Man is a traveler who mistook Him and Mother’s home for a bed and breakfast. Bald and emphysemic, it’d be acceptable to turn him away after a quick cup of coffee. But he’s nonetheless welcomed into the house as if it were a bed and breakfast by Him. Such horrifies Mother. Him didn’t think to ask her if she’d be comfortable letting Man stay in the guest room, but she's forced to accept it after it becomes clear that he'll be staying for the rest of the night.
Mother’s prepared for Man to leave in the morning. But not only does he continue to stay — he also invites his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to room with him. As the days go by, Man and Woman grow increasingly hostile. And, unsettlingly, the number of guests starts to grow, too, building and building until Him and Mother’s home metamorphoses into a castle of chaos. The assembly line of intruders is briefly halted by Mother’s pregnancy, which comes midway through the film and acts as a temporary stop to all the madness. But even when all is seemingly quiet, mother! never loses its intensity. With no steady ground to walk on, its moments of calm feel inherently deceitful. How could we not be unyieldingly second-guessing ourselves, after all, when these characters hold titles rather than names, when we’re positive that all in front of us is not actually taking place in a reality like our own?
Mother!’s unreality is heightened the more it progresses, increasingly unraveling until all verisimilitude becomes strictly allegorical. As soon as such an understanding comes out from the shadows, we transform from passive, completely viscerally reactive viewers into active ones. Attempting to stitch together the multicolored stripes of cloth provided by the storyline, we turn into bespectacled detectives of the celluloid, desperate to find the meaning behind the mayhem. The film is so brilliant, then, because that aforementioned meaning is so elastic: so many interpretations of mother! are possible, and almost all more or less fit. I see the feature as an allegory for misogyny and its relation to womanhood. The house represents the woman’s body; Lawrence embodies the woman’s psyche; the intruders are societal expectations; and Bardem is all the most devious aspects of the patriarchy merged into a single entity.
Consider: Lawrence, the psyche, knows exactly what she wants in the film. First she desires to finish renovating her home, then maybe have a couple kids. But what she wants is not valued by the powerful hand that is Bardem. Ultimately, he has the final say in what happens in her life.
The house, or her “body,” is essentially hers. Yet the intruders, standing in for the variety of individuals who don’t really value women — from the Planned Parenthood-attacking government to the societal parasites who say you must be married by a certain age and must have children by a certain age — don’t respect Lawrence for who she is but have the audacity to have an influence on what she does with her body. They force her into situations with which she isn’t comfortable, and inevitably attack her when she loses her motherly/wifely facade as she tries to rid herself of their pries.
So the eventual downward spiral into anarchy feels timeless. In a world wherein misogynistic men in suits routinely tell women what they can and cannot do with their lives and their bodies, of course being a woman can turn into a war zone of sorts. But such is not the only conclusion made regarding what mother! is really about. Some perceive it as an allegory for the creative process, in which an artist sacrifices much of what he loves for his work. Others consider it a religious satire exploiting the themes touched upon by such biblical stories as Adam and Eve. Lawrence herself sees it as a combination of the latter theory and the theory that the movie’s about the slow, brutal destruction of Mother Earth.
The flexibility of its ideas is one of the reasons mother! is such a magnificent work of art: because it can be interpreted in so many ways, it becomes universal. It’s certainly a horror movie, but fascinating is how it channels classic, ubiquitous horrors and reimagines them so rabidly. The movie is all provocation, working with enhanced levels of extremity. Yet it never loses its way in its labyrinth of maximalism. In Aronofsky’s writing and direction do we feel the presence of auteur at the height of his powers, and in the performances, particularly by Lawrence (convincingly terrified) and Pfeiffer (with a judgmental stare and an even better villainous air), do we see fearless actors doing some of the best work of their respective careers.
Mother! is inarguably divisive, and will continue being divisive for the years to come. But even the intense loathing of the film by a large part of the population feels like a victory. A feature inciting such a strong reaction, especially a feature headlined by A-list actors and released in 2,000-plus theaters, is unheard of. I find it transcendent, the sort of demanding masterpiece made with such bravura that a single watch makes you believe in moviemaking again. But proceed with caution: The film is a ruthless, horrifying attack on the senses. A