Mother! (2017)

09/20/2017  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

When you sign up for a Darren Aronofsky film, you know you’re in for a particular experience. He’s never shied away from the horrors of the ordinary, which is what make films like Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler so emotionally grueling. Even his flights of fancy aren’t immune to that kind of brutality. For all its overblown CGI spectacle, Noah is a Gustave Dore painting come to life in all its terrible majesty. And with a number of critical and financial successes under his belt, Aronofsky has earned enough clout to make whatever he wants for a change.

Which brings us to mother!

This is a difficult film to discuss in a conventional review for a couple of reasons. Primarily, so much of what makes the film work is tied to its final act, wherein all of the story’s metaphors and agendas are laid bare. The trailers have done an exceptional job at hiding some of its more explicit metaphorical content (for better or for worse, as audiences have been staying away in droves). Meanwhile, the tenor of the conversation surrounding the film has turned toward questioning what it takes to even understand movies, which is nothing short of bizarre. Mother!’s advertising paints it as a horror film, which is not entirely accurate. There is a horror vibe to this, but not in any conventional sense.

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Just a young woman wearing blood-splattered pants all alone in a giant house. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

Mother! finds Darren Aronofsky exorcising some of his spiritual demons in a cinematic tone poem that is in turns confounding and disturbing. It’s probably the clearest look yet inside the mind of this particular filmmaker. Your feelings on religion will no doubt color your impression of this film, but if you’re willing to make the journey, you’ll no doubt find it enormously satisfying. Fans of Aronofsky’s work should need no convincing to check this one out in theaters while they have the chance.

The film opens on a farmhouse in an idyllic pasture occupied by a husband and wife. The husband (Javier Bardem) is an acclaimed author struggling to pen his next work. Meanwhile his wife, the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), spends her time painting and restoring their home. Unwelcome guests begin arriving at the house, claiming to be fans of the husband’s work. First we meet a dying man (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), then their two sons (Domhnall & Brian Gleeson), the author’s literary agent (Kristen Wiig) and later various other friends and hangers-on. He welcomes all of these people with open arms, sharing his home and his possessions. As the number of occupants begins to escalate, it all becomes too much for Mother to bear. She has to periodically suppress violent tremors until she can’t take it anymore and explodes in a rage.

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In her defense, Hell IS other people.

Mother! employs a dreamlike logic as it transitions from scene to scene. Characters emerge and disappear seemingly at random; rooms seem to shift and expand on a whim. The camera flows through the house, always following close behind Mother to capture her reactions to this increasingly confusing series of events. It’s all purposeful, of course; a film this lyrical and obtuse doesn’t just happen by accident. As waves of people flood the house, it turns from a mere annoyance on a sunny day to a living nightmare bathed in darkness, and the feeling of so many faces in the frame at once becomes downright oppressive.

After a certain point, though, the game Aronofsky is playing becomes evident.

Mother! tells the story of a straining relationship, using the Bible as its narrative template. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood, the New Testament, the end of days, etc.; all of these serve as the backdrop for vignettes between a husband who follows his every whim and a wife whose concerns fall on deaf ears. Aronofsky plays fast and loose with the imagery and the iconography, but once that revelation dawns on the audience, the film shifts into overdrive and plows headfirst into a diatribe on the evils that humanity has wrought in the name of organized religion. It’s an unforgiving portrait of how the director apparently feels about Christianity, but the relationship between Mother and Him (as he’s listed in the credits) could just as easily be any relationship. That relationship exists between the man and his wife just as it exists between the artist and their audience, just as it exists between God and his creation.

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Here we see God-King Aronofsky sharing the blueprints for the house that he’s built with the star of the film that he’s making.

You can read it whichever way you like, but the fact that the film zeroes in on religion in particular opens up some unique pathways for discussion. For example, in one scene houseguests begin grabbing everything that’s not nailed down. Mother tries to stop one woman from making off with her pottery, to which the woman responds something to the effect of, “But HE said ‘What’s mine is yours!’ So gimme!” Everybody wants something, which leads to people ripping up the carpet and smashing through walls just to get a piece of what he promised. Seen from Mother’s perspective, it’s a horrifying sequence. It plays out like an indictment against Jesus’s tacit endorsement of communism. Kindness and selflessness are virtues, but how far can you take those ideas before they become destructive? 

This continues to build until the finale, which is fittingly apocalyptic. As more and more people flood the house, the nature of their stay shifts dramatically. No longer are these houseguests lingering at the tail-end of a cocktail party; these are full-blown squatters. More than that, though, they’re staking their claims for territory all over the house. Walls come down, and in their place go fences and chains, with plenty of faces to smash up against them. Bodies start piling up, fires are lit, bombs go off. It’s… Well, it’s the end of the world. (Compare this to society as Aronofsky portrays it in Noah.) People become animals tearing each other apart over scraps. It’s one of those moments where the horrors in the house start to mimic the horrors we take for granted on the evening news. What was once an idyllic country home is suddenly a warzone. When left to our own devices, Aronofsky suggests, this is just what we do to each other. And maybe the only way to set it all right again is to tear the whole thing down and start over.

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mother! may be a number of things, but subtle it is not.

At the same time, it’s a strangely cathartic ending, not only as a release from some truly shocking images, but because of how satisfying it is to see a filmmaker tease out these ideas as far as they could take them. Too often films about religion soft-pedal their message or imagery for fear of alienating the more faithful in the audience. How we feel about religion is a deeply personal, and everyone’s relationship with God (or a lack thereof) is different. Some are comfortable in their faith, while others find those thoughts to be a constant struggle. For a filmmaker like Aronofsky to play in that sandbox, and for a major studio to give him the freedom to come to his own conclusions, audiences be damned, is a fascinating thing to watch. Not only is it a welcome sight, but in this case it makes for a bracing, exquisite piece of filmmaking.

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Lyrical Cinematography
Mounting Psychological Dread
A Nerve-Wracking Finale
Unflinching Symbolism
The Communion Scene Was a Bit Much, Though

About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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