It is not a spoiler to say that MOTHER!, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, begins where it ends or that it is a circular game that will be hotly debated among audiences. It is his most nakedly metaphorical work, a movie that never seems remotely interested in being “real,” and it is revealing in ways that he may not have intended. What does it say about the film that my first reaction is an intense desire to hear a commentary track by Aronofsky’s ex-wife about the movie and its message?
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star here, and for the first twenty minutes or so, the film is just them, living an isolated life. She’s working to repair the massive house where they live, restoring all of the fire damage that drove him out of it years ago, and he’s trying to find inspiration to write again, having hit a dry spell in his creative life. During that early stretch, things are largely grounded in something like reality, but even so, there are images and ideas that are very surreal and that hint at something else going on just beneath the surface of what we’re watching.
Early marketing for the film has made it feel like a Rosemary’s Baby-style thriller, but that’s a huge misdirect, and even calling the film a “horror” film feels dishonest. Is it extreme? Yes. Are there images that are brutally difficult to look at? Plenty. Is it meant to unsettle you? Absolutely. But the film isn’t just trying to scare you or give you some easy jolts. It is an intensely personal experience, with everything rooted in the perspective of the nameless character played by Jennifer Lawrence. Most of the film’s characters are left nameless, which is fine when you’re dealing with something that is painting in such big, bright, primary colors.
It will be interesting to see what people take from this, as there are many ways this can be read. There is an overt Biblical allegory here, raising the question of how a book that purports to be about the entirety of human experience could spend so much time talking about creation without including any mention of the role a woman plays in that act. If you take this to be Aronofsky’s retelling of the Bible, then the character played by Lawrence is the missing puzzle piece excluded from the original telling, the Mother who actually carried creation to term so that the Father can take all the credit, make all the rules, and then burn the whole goddamn thing down if he doesn’t get his way. It’s a brash and fascinating movie if you want to read it on just that level.
There’s another way you can read this, as a defense of monstrous behavior on the part of the Artist, and that’s where I find this most interesting. It’s also where I have to separate what the film says from the way it says it, because they are two radically different responses from me. First, let’s just say that Aronofsky continues to be one of the most technically adept and adventurous filmmakers working. He has a remarkable ability to summon visual thunder and mother! is full of plenty of great examples. From moment to moment, his control over every element of what’s happening onscreen is breathtaking, and when reality starts to wear thin, the way he spins the world out of control around Lawrence is harrowing. It’s hard not to have a visceral reaction to certain sequences here. He’s mucking around with fairly primal stuff and we’re programmed to react. But if my read of the film is anywhere near correct, then I think I have a philosophical difference so profound with Aronofsky that it makes me take a step back to reconsider his work in general.
When your work consists of creative output that draws from your life, there is a balancing act you have got to navigate that is crucially important. I know this because I have crossed that line repeatedly and I have paid the price for it. If you’re going to write about your life, and you’re going to try to do so with any honesty or self-inspection, you run the risk of hurting the people around you who become part of your work. The Poet, as his adoring fans call him, is struggling to find something new to write about, and he becomes inspired once his wife becomes pregnant. What happens once he takes his life and turns it into art is the absolute most insane section of the film, and it feels to me like this is a dark-comic justification for whatever behavior it takes to create that art. So what if you hurt your wife? So what if you rob your children of privacy or dignity? So what if you embarrass yourself or your family? So what if you destroy everything that’s important to the people around you? As long as you get your art, what does it matter?
It matters, though, and I’m having a hard time seeing that in Aronofsky’s film. The act of creation is all that matters here, and the particular images that open and close the film seem to suggest that women are interchangeable, but the Artist remains primary and is the only truly important person. Even taken as dark comedy or a deflation of his own ego, the way this message is delivered is ugly wrapped in ugly. There’s a beating in this movie that upset me more than almost any act of violence I’ve seen in a film in recent memory, and there’s another act of violence that got an actual vocal reaction out of me. Jennifer Lawrence is dragged through so much misery over the course of the movie that it becomes an endurance test for the audience. It puts me in mind of films like Anti-Christ or Breaking The Waves or Irreversible. There is a point at which you have to ask yourself how much punishment you can watch heaped onto a character, especially a pregnant one.
Aronofsky has wrestled with ideas about dogma and creation and the role of art in our lives over the course of his career, and in this film, it seems like he sees artists in the role of the shaman or the holy man in our culture. People look to art for moral or spiritual guidance, and while The Poet is happy to play that role, he doesn’t seem to have any real authority to do so. His “morality” in the film is arbitrary, self-serving, and doesn’t have any room for his wife in terms of deciding what’s right or wrong. In fact, that’s the contradiction at the heart of the entire movie. The Poet talks about needing his wife, and he refers to her as “the inspiration,” and there are plenty of moments where he talks about how important she’s been to restoring his childhood home. But does he ever do anything in the film that shows any kind of genuine regard for her? Does he ever really put her first, or does he make a single decision that puts her needs ahead of his own? Hell, he routinely puts the needs of the complete strangers who intrude on their idyllic life ahead of her, and that’s one of the reasons things spiral so completely out of control.
What if this is an apology? What if this is Aronofsky trying to explain to the people who he’s loved before why things didn’t work? I know that when I look back at my relationships over the course of my life, I am hardest on myself. I am sure that I have been the cancer at the heart of things, and while I definitely learn from relationship to relationship, I am impressed by the bold new ways I have found to destroy things for myself. Part of what has made me so difficult is the way I’m wired, the way I have to be wired to do the things that I do. I am afraid of change because I’m afraid I suddenly won’t be able to work the same way, and I suspect that’s why so many creative people are afraid of therapy. They’re afraid to screw up whatever weird hoodoo allows them to do what they do. If you want to have a family and a life beyond your work, though, you learn how to change. You learn that you are part of something bigger than yourself, and you give yourself over to that. And maybe, just maybe, the decision I made to be a good father or to try to make my relationships work means that I don’t have what it takes to be “great.” If that’s true, though, I’m not sure I want to be great, and I’m certain that I don’t buy it as an excuse to abuse the people around you. If it’s an apology, it’s an awful one.
I am a big fan of everyone’s work on a tech level. Matthew Libatique has been a huge part of Aronofsky’s work overall, and his work here is overheated, feverish, and disturbing, like reality is slipping loose at the edge of the frames. The entire sound department deserves special attention for a dazzling assault of a sound mix. The film mixes physical and digital tricks with aplomb, and it’s a remarkable bit of physical staging. The entire film takes place in the house that is shared by Lawrence and Bardem, and Aronofsky does a nice job of first establishing the film’s geography and then violating it completely as a way of throwing you even further off-balance.
Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at this role, which is utterly unlike anything she’s done before, and it’s an impressive piece of work. Javier Bardem looks like a special effect. His head appears to be three times the size of hers, and he’s just surreal at times with the choices he makes. Ed Harris has a fairly thankless role, but Michelle Pfeiffer is delightfully strange as his wife. I love her, and she makes some great big choices, especially when she’s left to spar with Lawrence. Brian and Domnhall Gleeson show up in key roles, and Kristen Wiig and Stephen McHattie are among the familiar faces that show up in small but essential parts. The cast is all working on Aronofsky’s wavelength, which is all you can ask of them. There’s plenty of material here that almost dares you to compare it to information made public during the press tour for the film so far. I didn’t know Lawrence and Aronofsky were dating, but once you know that, it’s hard not to look at their age difference and the very similar age difference between Bardem and Lawrence. Does it matter at all? It certainly informs the script, and it seems like something that Aronofsky’s been thinking about.
So, yes… I admire a lot of it. But in the end, did I like mother! as an experience? I’m not sure. I felt like enough of it rubbed me wrong that I’ll have to take another look at it. I’ve had reactions like this to films that I ended up loving, and I’ve also gone back and given films a second chance and hated them from start to finish. Only time will tell how mother! settles for me. One thing’s for sure, though… Aronofsky doesn’t seem to be mellowing with age.
Running time: 115 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic