Oh “mother!” Darren Aronofsky’s Lurid Fever Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s first film since 2014’s Noah is, to put it simply, a lot. That’s certainly saying something; this is the director of Requiem for A Dream and Black Swan after all. But mother! makes those films feel like an warm up in a much larger exercise in psychological terror. The marketing campaign for mother! has revolved around keeping direct details about the film’s plot shrouded in secrecy. As the film has played at various film festivals, Aronofsky has moderated Q&A’s and screenings, hyping up the movie’s disturbing and polarizing nature. 

“Sorry for what I’m about to do,” he said on the stage at the Toronto Film Festival, going on to describe the film as “an assault” and “a cruise missile shooting into a wall.” “At the film’s premiere, he told reporters that, “You’re all really going to hate me in about an hour and a half.” 

There’s something to be said about a director wearing the negative press about his film like a badge of honor (Cinemascore revealed yesterday that audience members gave the film a rare F grade). In the case of mother! and Aronofsky, it only adds to my frustrations about the film. As I said, mother! is certainly a lot, and I did find my mouth hanging wide open during some moments, including the ludicrous climax, but not for the reasons the director/writer may have been hoping.

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Jennifer Lawrence plays Mother (yes, that is her credited name) with Javier Bardem playing Him, Mother’s husband. The two live in a gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere. Him, an allegedly famous poet, is having a frustrating case of writer’s block. He sits in his study, pacing, waiting for the words to flow so he can transfer them to the page (spoiler: they don’t come). He’s clearly very frustrated, and takes it out on his doting wife who wants nothing more than to make their home into “a paradise.” According to Him, Mother “brought life back into the house.” The one thing she can’t bring life into, however, is her husband, though she certainly tries. 

The couple’s quiet and seemingly peaceful state of equilibrium is disrupted one night with a knock at the door by an older man (Ed Harris). He says he’s a doctor who has lost his way, but that quickly turns into his admittance that he’s actually a devoted fan of Him’s work, which turns to him spending the night. The next day his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, and suddenly the quiet existence that Mother and Him had seemingly carved out for themselves in the middle of nowhere is thrown out of the window, with Him so infatuated with the newly arrived couple. “You can stay as long as you’d like,” he says, much to Mother’s annoyance as their paradise has quickly become tainted. 

I won’t go any deeper into the film’s plot, but it was during this part that I felt mother! worked the best. I’ve read reviews and complaints that this half of the film felt entirely too slow, though I would argue the pacing only seems slow in this portion because of how incredibly nuts the second one is. The first plays like a riff on a strange combination on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and Rosemary’s Baby, with the best moments being Pfeiffer’s character sinking her claws deeper and deeper into this already unsettled marriage. The actress hasn’t starred in a feature film since 2013’s misfire The Family, but the way she saunters onto the screen with a spiked iced lemonade in hand made me realize how much I had missed her. Each line reading and stare feels like it’s tinged with venom, but it’s in the way Pfeiffer plays the character that keeps us, and Mother, second guessing her intentions at all times. Even now, I’m still not quite sure. 

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Aronofsky’s trusted cinematographer Matthew Libatique pulls the camera close on Lawerence in a way that emulates the way he shot Natalie Portman in Black Swan, entirely from her perspective. It’s claustrophobic in a way that adds a layer of intensity, especially when Mother begins seeing things that may or may not actually be there in the same way Nina Sayers did. And while Lawrence doesn’t go quite as far as Portman or Ellen Burstyn did in their outings with Aronofsky (by no fault of her own, as she’s working with far less character material) she deserves praise for making this heavy handed exercise symbolism watchable. Running at a lengthy 121 minutes, mother! is by no means easy to get through, but it would have been even harder to navigate without Lawrence’s dedicated performance. Much praise also should be directed at the impeccable sound editing; much like all of Aronofsky’s movies (especially Black Swan) each creak and whisper feels increasingly more sinister.

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I know there are a lot of people who have been quick to call mother! an outright failure. I’m not sure I agree with that. By all means, go see the film, there certainly won’t be anything else like it this year. The film’s various messages about religion, relationships and their dynamics and hero worship (whether your hero is Jesus, a poet or a social media celebrity) are painfully obvious once Aronofsky moves beyond table setting, which is why his talking down to audience members, whether it be through the film or in his press tour, feels so unnecessary. How dumb do you think we are? It doesn’t take some self-proclaimed cinephile to connect the dots here. Sure, there are plenty of Easter Eggs and allusions to dozens of things carefully sprinkled throughout that will certainly be debated and picked apart, none of which give the center of the movie any substance. The second act feels entirely divorced from the first, and urges the audience to be shocked and reviled; it’s impossible to walk back.

In the end, mother! is a film that so desperately wants to be thought provoking and divisive, like a child doing anything and everything to get their parents’ attention. You can almost feel Aronofsky behind you, whispering in your ear and asking for your fury and disdain. He’s waiting for the moment that you to throw your hands up and scream, “You’ve gone too far this time!”  

If only the final product was even worth being upset about. 

Grade: Somewhere between a C and a D, with certain moments feeling like a B/B-

Oscar Chances: I know that Jennifer Lawrence has a quasi-Meryl Streep like record when it comes to Oscar nominations (she even got in for Joy) but I think mother! will be the one that breaks it, especially with how competitive of a year this is. And for those hoping that Michelle Pfeiffer can pull a Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby, don’t hold your breath. 

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