One thing is clear when you head into the cinema to see a Darren Aronofsky film – you’re probably not going to come out the other side feeling particularly cheery. You’re also likely going to need at least a second or third viewing to even begin to understand his complex vision.
His latest mind-fuck of a film takes that to a new level. Actually, it takes things to a completely different planet. What planet that is, I still have no idea. This film will be interpreted and deconstructed in a hundred different ways, each dependent on the viewer’s own personal response to it. Regardless of your own interpretation, it will hit you like a tonne of bricks. You’ll either absolutely love it or you’ll utterly despise it. There’s probably no middle-ground. That much is also clear.
In mother!, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play an unnamed newlywed couple (the credits refer to them only as “Mother” and “Him”), living in a gorgeous, but remote, Victorian mansion in the countryside. She spends her days meticulously renovating their stunning home, which we learn was all but destroyed in a fire that claimed the life of his first wife. He, a famous poet, spends his days flailing about the house, on a roller coaster of mood swings, as he tries to overcome his crippling writer’s block.
But Mother, painfully meek and mild, is always doting and accommodating, no matter how poorly her selfish husband treats her. She’s determined to inspire and reinvigorate his passion for writing, and the house restoration project is seemingly her desperate way of saving their already failing marriage.
Late one night, there’s a knock at their door. Dun-dun-dunnn. A mysterious stranger (Ed Harris, referred to as “Man”) has apparently mistaken their beautiful country manor for a bed-and-breakfast. Rather than dismiss the confused intruder, Him invites Man in for a drink, and within mere moments, the two are chatting away like old friends, much to the confusion of Mother. Her confusion grows when Him soon insists Man spend the night.
And it gets even stranger from here. The very next morning, Man’s wife (a dazzling Michelle Pfeiffer, known as “Woman”) arrives to join them. Woman is brash and fiercely confident, bolstered by her extra-special lemonade (aka she has a drinking problem), and is the complete antithesis to Mother. It’s not long before they clash. Woman takes great delight in playing with Mother’s self-doubts, namely her age difference with Him and their non-existent sex life.
Once again, Him shocks his suffering wife by inviting Man and Woman to stay as long as they like. But, yet again, she bites her tongue, which must be a bloody stump by this point, and continues to play the selfless maid to their new guests. Soon enough, Man and Woman’s two warring sons (real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) also arrive, bringing even more chaos to the household.
But it’s when Him’s cult-like fans rock up that things get weird. Really, really weird. To say much more would spoil the utter insanity that ensues from here. The shocks and surprises they bring (including a bizarrely wonderful cameo from Kristen Wiig) need to be seen with fresh eyes. All I will say is the final 30 minutes of this film are chaotic, breathtaking, confronting, and deeply, deeply unsettling.
Now I am comfortable enough to state I am not in a position to properly analyse this film’s deeply complex symbolism and its heavy use of analogies and metaphors. It really could be the kind of movie that film historians argue over for decades to come. Whether they’ll be right or wrong is really only for Aronofsky to decide. His film is about everything. Or it’s about nothing. Who can really say? But it’s his most outlandishly ambitious work to date, and that has to be admired. It seemingly exists in the same realm as his previous masterpiece Black Swan, but feels more like that film’s more greatly disturbed and psychologically-paranoid cousin.
From how I saw it, mother! is commenting on everything from misogyny and spousal mistreatment (Mother suffers relentlessly for her devotion to a conceited narcissist) to environmentalism (Mother could be viewed as the personification of Mother Earth and how poorly we treat her) to religion (Man and Woman’s sons draw strong parallels with Cain and Abel, Him could be viewed as the personification of God) to the perils of modern-day fame and celebrity (Him’s devotees are intense, to say the least). Just when you think you know what this film is really about, it shifts focus to being about something else entirely. Maybe it’s about all of these things. Maybe it’s about none of them. Maybe it’s just a tale of horror and absurdity, and nothing more. You can really view it however you please.
Whatever his intentions, and whether or not this whole film is really just about making you, the audience, as uncomfortable as possible, while he relentlessly tortures his poor leading lady, Aronofsky is a master visual craftsman. Your experience with his dark vision here feels more like being stuck on a horrific theme park ride, getting progressively more and more disturbing, as you travel further along the track. And much like being on a ride, you’re stuck in your seat, making the horror uncomfortably inescapable.
A lot of that has to do with the way mother! is impeccably shot, in an almost voyeuristic style by Matthew Libatique. The entire piece is told from Mother’s point of view, with the camera constantly stalking her with tight close-ups and point-of-view shots. If she doesn’t see something, neither do we, which only adds to the rising tension and anxiety of the events surrounding her. That tension is raised even higher by the curious lack of a film score, with Aronofsky choosing to focus closely on the sound effects instead. Much like Black Swan, every noise is heightened and emphasised, whether it’s the scraping of paint in a bowl to the crackling of a fireplace, and it’s jarringly effective. Coupled with some masterful production design from Philip Messina (the mansion is its own character entirely) and glorious visual effects from supervisor Dan Schrecker, particularly in the film’s hellish climax, the entire production is a feast for the eyes.
While the film’s meanings will be hotly debated, what’s not up for debate are the film’s performances, with Jennifer Lawrence once again proving why she’s one of the best in the business right now. Mother as a character is a true departure for Lawrence, an actress so deft at playing strong females with command over their surroundings. She’s never in control here, and delivers a vulnerability and built-up repression unlike anything Lawrence has given us before. But hiding beneath that vulnerability is an unrelenting strength to Mother that is a true credit to Lawrence’s acting skills.
What she’s made to endure (both the character and the actress) is overwhelming, to say the least, but she never stops pushing through. Lawrence gives yet another performance you can’t help but be enthralled by. Much like Sandra Bullock’s work in Gravity or Natalie Portman’s in Black Swan, she carries this entire production on her shoulders, and never once lets it drop. It’s not hard to see why she’s already got one hand on her fifth Oscar nomination in seven years.
The real surprise here is the magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives her best (and a potentially Oscar-worthy) performance in years as the sinister and sexy house intruder. She plays Woman with such delicious cattiness and an intoxicating wicked style that it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Her scenes with Lawrence are utterly electric to witness, as she twists and controls a woman she clearly deems far lesser than herself. It’s a damn shame she’s not around for the entire film (a major problem for her Oscar chances) because you truly miss her when she exits much too soon. But perhaps it was wise of Aronofsky to do so, as she was threatening to steal the entire movie from Lawrence, if she stayed any longer.
There are some obvious plot holes that are hard to ignore. The mansion’s remote location is played far too heavily. The convenient lack of neighbouring properties and any cell-phone reception allows Aronofsky to escape delivering proper reasoning as to why Mother continues to remain in the house, despite the horror unfolding around her. It becomes rather comical to witness certain events (particularly one involving a human heart and a toilet) that would have anyone in their right mind running for the hills, but see Mother just carry on, as if she didn’t just see what we just did. It’s also never really clear as to why she’s made to suffer so relentlessly, other than being guilty of a poor choice of husband. But perhaps that’s deliberate, as it’s hard not to feel deep empathy for such an innocent victim.
If nothing else, at face-value, mother! is a wild, ridiculous, thrilling spectacle of a film. And maybe that’s enough. It’s one undeniable achievement is never being dull or boring. And, again, maybe that’s enough. It grabs you from the beginning, and never once lets go. Love it or hate it, mother! is a film from a visionary director that demands to be seen.