When it comes to the oeuvre of Darren Aronofsky, one of the best cinematic auteurs working today, I’ve always felt his body of work could easily be divided into two distinct categories: Spiritual Aronofsky and Everything is F*cked Aronofsky.
Everything is F*cked Aronofsky explores themes such as obsession, addiction, dreams and the harshness of reality. He portrays characters that are royally screwed, but is full of empathy for them and their plight. This is the filmmaker that made Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. His films are difficult to watch and even more difficult to revisit, but the endurance is worth it.
Spiritual Aronofsky explores questions of morality, of life and death itself, tackles the things that keep him up at night and helps him come to terms with himself and the world around him. This is the filmmaker that made The Fountain and Noah. His films are immensely challenging, deeply cathartic and endlessly reward repeat viewings. I’ve always preferred this Aronofsky to the other guy.
mother! is what happens when these two filmmakers come together, and the results are… unwieldy, to say the least.
mother! is an immensely difficult film to review, because it’s hard to not discuss it without getting into the central metaphor at play, so there may be elements that follow this point that could be constituted as minor spoilers. Proceed with caution.
I’ll keep the plot synopsis as simple as possible: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple (who remained unnamed, along with everyone else in the film) living in seclusion in a large house that’s being fixed up by Lawrence after it was previously destroyed in a fire. Bardem is a writer of an unspecified degree of distinction and Lawrence is his adoring younger wife 1. One day, Bardem begins to welcome strangers into the house as guests, which begins to make Lawrence uncomfortable. These strangers include Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom are fantastic. Bardem just wants to bring life into the house, to bring in new perspectives and give him new inspiration, while Lawrence just wants them to live happily together and start a family. From there… well, it’s better if you discover it alone.
Describing the plot in general is kind of difficult, because the reality is that mother! is less a horror film and more specifically an art film. It’s one of the most bizarrely avant-garde things ever released by a major studio. It has more in common with Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and the early works of Roman Polanski 2 than it does with something like the recently released It, with the fairly simple and straightforward plot being used mostly as a tree on which Aronofsky hangs his customarily unsubtle thematics.
And that’s where things kinda get dicey, as mother! allows Aronofsky to explore themes of life, death, Biblical creation and destruction and the everything in between, as he does in his Spiritual filmmaking, but it more largely serves as an extremely personal metaphor for Aronofsky himself, his creative process, his relationships and how they collide with his artistic ambitions — which is where Everything is F*cked Guy comes in. The problem with this is that an argument could be made that his desire to explore these two disparate elements at the same time causes him to inadvertently deliver a central message that’s… deeply egotistical and almost callously dismissive of the people closest to him.
I spent most of the runtime of mother! thinking I had “gotten it.” The first shot tips Aronofsky’s hand in a major way, and his treatment of Lawrence’s character for most of the film made me believe his writing was confessional, that he was trying to show empathy for her and, by extension, empathy for the subject of his central theme. However, the final moments of the film radically altered this perspective, making me wonder if it was all a ruse to cloak what he was really trying to say, and if that was the case, then what he chose to say instead was something I didn’t like all that much.
That said, I think everyone who can stomach some disturbing imagery should see this film — and make no mistake it is disturbing as hell. This movie makes The Neon Demon look like an educational video for Sunday School by comparison. The final act in particular is an almost nonstop parade of increasingly disturbing, disorienting imagery that ratchets up the cruelty and intensity with each passing second. Jennifer Lawrence really throws herself into it, giving a fearless performance that easily ranks with her best work 3. Javier Bardem is also captivating as her aloof, eccentric husband, playing a role that you will very quickly come to understand as being very close to Aronofsky’s heart. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is stunning as always, and the montage and editing throughout the film leaves no doubt as to who directed the film you’re watching.
mother! is, without a doubt, the most Aronofsky movie Aronofsky has ever made, and he might never make one that exceeds it in that regard. Aronofsky brings his two disparate halves together into a film that has a super clear central metaphor (Aronofsky has never been afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve), stunning filmmaking, great performances and a near-constant atmosphere of dread. There will be very few films this year that are more ambitious. The only question is: is that ambition in service of a central message that is worthy and startlingly honest and personal, or is it in service of one that’s navel-gazing, egotistical and deeply callous?
I’m honestly not sure. If you’ve seen Aronofsky’s other films and like them, you should definitely check this one out regardless. If you’re not a fan… well, this ain’t gonna change your mind.
- yes, their age difference is important here for reasons best left to the film itself
- Between Black Swan and mother!, Aronofsky leaves no doubt that he really freakin’ loves Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby
- Can she just stick with Aronofsky from now on instead of going back to bullshit David O. Russell movies?