There’s no easy way to describe Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, the appropriately titled mother! (appropriate once the pieces start crashing into place). It’s oppressively heavy on symbolism, it’s profoundly unsettling, it’s guaranteed to piss off practically audience member in one way or another. To be blunt: it’s pure Aronofsky and, if its reception from both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals to the scathingly polarizing reaction its had in its first weekend of release are any indicator, it’s going to cement itself with ease as one of the most thoroughly debated experiences of the 21st century. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to you.
In a beautiful countryside manor amidst lush fields and the warmest sunsets (all beautifully brought to life by regular Aronofsky DP Matthew Libatique and production designer Philip Messina) lives a couple – given no names in the story, they are referred to in the end credits as “Him” (Javier Bardem) and the titular “mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) – making the most out of life away from the outside world. Him, a famous poet bogged down with a crippling case of writer’s block, paces around his office and the countryside in a desperate need of inspiration while mother spends her hours restoring her older husband’s somewhat dilapidated home to the paradise she knows it can be with the right touch. The opening scenes are but a very small smattering of moments where she will know and understand beauty and comfort. It’s all downhill from here.
This happy appearing May-December couple’s tranquility takes a sudden backseat (in actuality, the brakes could have been hit so hard, the force could tear the seat belts in half and send the front seat passengers crashing into the back, hitting whoever is in the way) when an unnamed doctor (Ed Harris) unceremoniously arrives, mistaking the home for a B&B. Him welcomes the man, eventually revealed to be a terminally ill fan, into his home with open arms, something mother tries to object to. It is when a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the man’s rather vampy wife, shows up the next morning that things take a turn for the discomforting and sinister over strong lemonade, displaced laundry, cigarettes and snarky inquiries about the lack of children in Him and mother’s family.
Another set of guests arrive out of nowhere, one grievous sin follows one innocuous in nature, but just as damning and soon, droves of people force their way into the home. People with nothing but fanatical love and devotion for Him and his words, a juxtaposition of the indifference building up to violent disdain felt for mother, their home and her hard work. To say none of this will end well would be stating the obvious, but the why and how of this incoming apocalypse is something that must be seen to be believed. And even then, it’s difficult to, even with the somewhat surprise appearance of a seasoned SNL veteran putting her darkly comedic chops to good use.
With it’s intimate photography and precise sound design, mother! joins a celebrated line of claustrophobic and isolated relationship chillers with a great fondness for the morbidly macabre like the Roman Polanski classic ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, which many people incorrectly assumed mother! would be connected to, thanks to deceptive marketing, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, from its nameless protagonists holed up in in their private Eden to its sinister ambiance escalating into visceral, MPAA challenging horrors not so easily forgotten when exiting the theater. It’s also one hell of a horror film, more in line with the aforementioned Polanski film and less the modern ones with their reliance on obnoxiously loud sound mixing and jump scares, and one of the biggest gambles a major studio has made with a psychological horror film since Warner Bros. distributed Ken Russell’s still ultra-controversial ‘The Devils’. Whatever madman executive(s) at Paramount green-lit this idea, certainly knowing how far Mr. Aronofsky planned to take his story, deserves a medal of some sort.
That horror also comes from what ‘mother!’ has to say about such controversial topics as the direction various organized religions have gone in the last few decades, especially among the people who have perverted devotion into violent zealotry, greedy exploitation of the earth’s natural resources and its disrespected people, the discomfort of relationships where one partner becomes bearer of the brunt of unneeded criticism and scrutiny, the symbiotic relationship between creator and fan/creation and other topics best saved for in the theater. Actually, it’s less said and more viciously snarled, the infuriated commentary of a storyteller who has seen people at their worst and demanding they understand how they’ve corrupted stories meant to inspired the best. With ‘mother!’ as the capper of his unofficial trilogy of spiritual exploration, started with 2006’s ‘The Fountain’ and furthered with 2014’s ‘Noah‘, one can’t help but admire – revel in, even – the irony of a professed spiritual agnostic like Mr. Aronofsky being a better interpreter of (modernized) biblical parables than filmmakers of the staunchest belief.
And then, there’s the leading lady herself. Ms. Lawrence, a charismatic actress that shines like the best of old Hollywood, has spent the better part of this decade honing her craft with controversial director David O. Russell (a horror movie unto himself) and earning deserved acclaim for each collaboration, but it’s here with Mr. Aronofsky where she really hits a grand slam, delivering what is sure to be not only her best performance to date, but one of the most physically and emotionally demanding performances a mainstream Hollywood production has given an A-list star in a long time. Some may (and have) argue(d) that the film treats mother and her performer with a rather misogynistic bent, but it’s ultimately a “necessary evil” to convey the cruelty of those emboldened by their beliefs. The whole ensemble delivers some of their career’s finest work – with Javier Bardem being simultaneously charismatic and menacing and Michelle Pfeiffer giving her best work in almost a decade – but when it comes to the acting, this is the Jennifer Lawrence show from start to end and, if the Academy wants to be bold, this year will see nominations for both of the primary female performances, much like 1976’s recognition of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie’s performances in ‘Carrie’.
When exiting the theater on opening day, many people in the audience were discussing what transpired with an intense fervor rarely felt among mainstream audiences anymore, something that has carried over to social media discussions. From this cinephile’s perspective, if you hate Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence, ‘mother!’ isn’t going to make a fan of you; in fact, it will probably strength your disdain for them. If you love Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence, mother! does a pretty damn good job of showing them surpassing their A game with something truly challenging to the senses. Perhaps one day, it will find its rightful place among the cinematic greats, but for now, it will have to settle with its equally earned title as a provoking cult classic in the making.