mother! (2017): Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Running Time: 121 minutes. Based on: Fie on you if you can’t guess it.
mother! is one of those movies that is, for several reasons, damn near impossible to review properly, not the least of which is that my autocorrect keeps insisting I must be mistaken about that uncapitalized “m” and the explanation point that keeps popping up in the middle of full sentences.
Tiring as it is, though, autocorrect can be worked around. What can’t be worked around is that any discussion of the most interesting and important aspects of this movie- i.e., everything that makes mother! worth seeing as one of the most bizarre and frustrating cinematic creations of 2017- can’t be so much as touched on in a spoiler-free manner. Which I very much want this review to be, partially because this is a movie where not knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes until you’re in it is a key part of its effect, and also because if I did try to spell out the depths of this movie’s madness, you all wouldn’t believe me, and would have me packed off to the madhouse before I could utter the words “auteur schmauteur.”
Well, let’s at least try, shall we? There is a house, still bearing the scars of a recent fire. Two people, an older poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) reside there. She struggles day by day to rebuild the house to something resembling its former glory, while he sits in his office and grapples with a particularly nasty case of writer’s block. The house, much like its cousins in films like Crimson Peak, is place filled with nooks, crannies, and small rooms aplenty, enough to constantly make you feel like there’s always more to the place you haven’t yet seen, places which will inevitably be revealed in the most unpleasant of ways.
Their stable, if not necessarily happy, routine is broken up when an older couple they don’t know turns up out of the blue one night. For reasons neither we nor the woman can fathom, the man acts as if his best friend has returned from the dead, and welcomes them into the house like family. They proceed to make themselves increasingly at home, despite the woman’s very agitated attempts to get them to leave. Then their sons show up, and an apparently very nasty, long-running family feud breaks wide open in the worst way possible, much to the woman’s horror.
And it is right about then that every semblance of normalcy the film initially possessed is cast to the four winds, the baby of rationality is tossed out with the bathwater, and an orgy of insanity soon descends upon the house, the theater screen, and the poor psyches of every unsuspecting soul who wanders into a theater seat expecting a by-the-numbers horror flick. And it is here that I will not say any more. If you want to learn the truth, you’re on your own.
Now don’t misunderstand me- it’s not that the ideas or thematic overtones within the movie are too obtuse or impenetrable- the overall structure of the film (and what Darren Aronofsky is playing at) is not very hard to make out. It becomes very clear very early on that he’s using a rough template of several biblical stories, particularly the creation stories in the book of Genesis, to tie together clear religious and spiritual themes with reflections on the struggles inherent in unequal gender roles in marriage and the world of art, and how popular culture always carries an inherent, dark tendency to simply consume all it can of whatever person or thing it latches onto, no matter the cost to those caught up in its relentless maelstrom.
What IS amazing, baffling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at once is seeing just how far the people making this mini marvel commit to taking it all to its logical extreme, and that they found a way to lay it all out on-screen in excruciatingly graphic detail. The rising tension within the film- brilliantly conveyed by tight cinematography that rarely leaves the taught, stressed, and later frightened face of the woman- begins to snowball early in the second act, crashes into what would be the emotional highpoint in most other movies, plateaus for just a bit, and then starts rolling back up again, picking up steam and careening into a mad frenzy of a third act that, in terms of the sheer technical wizardry needed to make it function as a piece of filmmaking, is one of the most daring artistic endeavors I’ve ever witnessed.
I ultimately feel at a loss to judge whether or not all this really works as a functional narrative- the way many of its elements were so violently mashed together will struck some as too over-the-top, and its depiction of religion (specifically Catholicism) will be too crass and blunt for others- but that it took amazing skill and gumption to think up, create, and release this to the public is beyond question. I would much rather see a film try and fail to create this sort of experience than something that plays it by the numbers any day of the week.
It is also an immense relief to see Jennifer Lawrence back in a role that suits her talents. This may very well be the film that nets her a second Oscar, and unlike the David Russell tripe she’s been wallowing in for the past 4 years, this time around she’ll have earned it. I had begun to have my doubts about her, but this movie puts quite a few of them to rest, and thank the Creator for that.
I have no idea who will like this film, and I know many people who would only hate it, but let there be no doubt- nothing else coming this year, or in many years prior, is anything like this, and if the experience of the unique is something you prize in a movie above everything else, this is where you need to be.