An impressively mounted, but ultimately scattershot allegorical potboiler, Darren Aronofsky's mother! seems designed first and foremost to be divisive. It is as if Aronofsky, who is certainly no stranger to cinematic extremes, assembled his ruthless fever dream with the sole purpose of splitting the audience right down the middle, causing one side of the aisle to hail its visual, thematic, and narrative brutality as necessary for its symbolic implications while the other side decries it as turgid, pompous, pseudo-art that celebrates outrage for its own sake.
You certainly can't fault Aronofsky's cinematic gifts and ambitions; he knows how to spin a story into wild excess and drag you along with it, and his impressive visual sensibility is matched only by his uncanny understanding of how and when to ratchet the tension and then keep piling on, so that just when you think that the crazy has been fully unleashed, he uncorks some more. At the same time, though, the film's metaphorical implications are so vague and open-ended, not to mention potentially nonsensical, that it is hard to justify what he's doing on purely artistic grounds. The film is both an artful examination of exploitative relationships and an exploitative con job on the viewer. If you can find a way to reconcile those two seemingly discordant realities, you may just find the film to be a masterpiece.
The entire story unfolds inside a massive Victorian mansion that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere; it sits in a clearing surrounded by fairy tale woods that may very well stretch into infinity. We are introduced to the film's protagonists, a husband and wife who are referred to in the credits only as Him and Mother. Mother is much younger than Him, who is a famous poet struggling with an acute case of writer's block. Mother works primarily to support his artistic endeavors, which primarily involves renovating their house, which we saw at the beginning of the film was literally burned to the ground. Their lives are disrupted first by the strange appearance of a Man (Ed Harris) who claims to be a surgeon looking for a bed and breakfast where he can stay while finishing his research, and then the next morning by the man's officious wife (Michelle Pfieffer). Him and the Man strike up an immediate camaraderie that makes Mother feel isolated in her own home, which is only compounded by the Woman's meddlesome, confrontational nature and later dismissive attitude toward her (Pfeiffer utterly nails the character's contemptuousness; she may be the best thing in the film).
Further disruption arrives in the form of the Man and Woman's quarrelsome adult sons (Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson), who set in motion the film's second half in which things get progressively more crowded, more unhinged, and ultimately destructive. At all times Mother is our point of reference, and we watch powerlessly as she tries and fails to maintain order and a sense of normality in her home. Her best efforts are undercut again and again in ways that begin as slight personal insults, breaches in decorum, and microaggressions before ballooning into all-out assault (the film's marketing has kept the narrative purposefully vague, but the trailer included enough imagery of utter pandemonium to make it clear that Mother's happy home morphs into some kind of Dante-esque hellscape).
Aronofsky has long been fascinated by what we might call "narrative descent," in which intimations of madness, disorder, and violence build and build until they finally explode (or implode). Many of his best films, including Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2011), follow this trajectory, which is narrative, emotional, and aesthetic in nature. mother!, with its telling exclamation point at the end of the title, may be his fullest realization of narrative descent, and from a purely formal perspective, it is absolutely masterful. The film's rhythms are paced with pinpoint accuracy, and Aronofsky keeps building layers of tension through familiar techniques, mostly drawn from the horror genre (strange visions, an eerily glowing furnace in the basement, inexplicable sounds in the walls, a sense of isolation and estrangement), that he wields with such authority that we forget we've seen them before.
Yet-one can't help but feel that too much of the film is a big put-on, a charade of hellish imagery and will-he-go-there? awfulness that plays too much for its own sake. The film's formal precision is not matched on a thematic or allegorical level, with the film left open to all kinds of meanings, which in and of itself isn't bad. It's just that no one reading can account for everything, and Aronofsky himself has admitted that if you read too much into the film it will eventually fall apart. Some have argued that it is an allegory about environmental destruction, others see it as a reflection on humankind's relationship with God, and others see it a kind of jumble of Biblical allusions, which certainly has precedence in Aronofsky's work (his last film was 2014's Noah, a controversial take on the familiar Old Testament story). The film strikes me as most meaningfully about the brutal nature of artistic creation and the manner in which women are used and abused by powerful men who need them for their love, support, and nurturance, but discard them once they are used up or no longer serve any purpose (it is Aronofsky's Rosemary's Baby, albeit with that film's hard-line literalness replaced with abstract metaphor-fantasy). As played by Javier Bardeem, Him is a self-absorbed artist whose narcissism expands from emotional abuse, to physical abuse, to ultimately spiritual abuse. This means, of course, that Mother exists primarily to endure all the inhumanity inflicted on her, and Jennifer Lawrence is stuck playing a role that feels lifted from one of Lars von Trier's dreary exercises in female martyrdom. It helps in some regard that Lawrence is clearly playing an idea, a symbol, rather than a character, although that doesn't make watching what she goes through any less of an ordeal. And mother! is, like many a violent art film before it, very much an ordeal, and how you manage that experience will go a long way in determining what you think of it as a whole.
For me, had the film had more allegorical and thematic rigor, it would be justified in its excesses. It would fall in line with films like Pier Paolo Pasolini's SalÃ³, the 180 Days of Sodom (1975), which is quite possibly the most notorious film of this notorious subgenre and one that lays claim to its status of masterpiece by virtue of Pasolini's absolute political and ideological commitment to merging form and meaning. It's a miserable film to watch, but one that sticks to its subtext about the nature of fascism and its degradation of humanity without relenting. mother!, on the other hand, feels too opportunistic, with Aronofsky grabbing at ideas in a way that is more haphazard than thoughtful (in this way, it felt like some of Alejandro Jodorowsky's more self-serving cinematic experiments, and had it come out in the '70s, mother! would have certainly become a midnight movie sensation). The film is an unforgettable experience, to be sure (something we don't get at the movies too much these days), and one of the most deliriously crackpot studio productions in years. But, the fact that it doesn't hold together in retrospect makes it suspect. The more you think about it, the more it falls apart.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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