9/14/2017

Review: Darren Aronofsky's 'mother!' Is One WTF Moment After Another


There has been a swirl of mystery surrounding Darren Aronofsky's oddly-stylized mother!, regarding exactly what kind of movie it would be. Teasers have suggested something haunting and Kubrick-ian, but also a tense relationship drama or home invasion thriller.

The truth is that it's all of those things and so much more. mother! defies easy description, and with every incendiary moment it takes viewers on a wildly unpredictable, terrifying, darkly comic ride of Biblical proportions that is guaranteed to be divisive for everything that Aronofsky piles on.


If you thought Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan had it rough, it's nothing compared to the mountain of indignities heaped on Jennifer Lawrence's unnamed heroine. Everyone remains unnamed throughout, for reasons that become obvious later. She is simply referred to as "mother", and her husband (Javier Bardem) as "him". Nothing about mother! is given out easily, and what discoveries there are could be the subject of intense debate. The film begins with a striking image of a woman burning, her skin ablaze and cracked, before the elegant title card pops up and you can almost see Aronofsky grinning. This is gonna be crazy.

But after that, it takes a fairly familiar tract, at least in the beginning. Lawrence and Bardem's married couple live in a too-large home in the middle of nowhere. He's a renowned poet suffering from writer's block; she has helped rebuild his childhood home from scratch after it was destroyed in a fire. They don't seem to have a lot in common otherwise; the home is cold and distant; they barely seem to be in the same room, at least not for long. There's no passion to speak of, but no animosity either. He's frustrated by his writing, or lack thereof, while she is quietly supportive.


Their relative tranquility is disrupted by an unexpected knock on the door, which turns out to be a nameless man (Ed Harris) claiming to be a doctor. While neither of them have ever met him before, the poet invites the man, who claims to be a super fan, to stay at their home without his wife's approval. Minor offenses occur throughout (Never smoke in a woman's house uninvited!), until the visitor's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) also shows up, seething venom with every glare. When the visiting couple's warring sons (played by real-life siblings Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and things start getting deadly, mother! begins to evolve from a drama of manners into something terrifying. And we haven't even gotten to whatever that corrosive thing is growing within the home's walls.

So much happens in mother! that to give anything more beyond this point would be criminal. It's as if Aronofsky, who has admitted in prior interviews that he basically wrote the script in one weekend, is indulging in all of his cinematic vices and tapping into all of his favorite directors. The clearest, most obvious influence is Kubrick, and the paranoid tenor of Rosemary's Baby is unmistakable, and only grows over time.


But rest assured, only a guy who directed the psychedelic Requiem for a Dream, the biblical epic Noah, the tormented thriller Black Swan, and the trippy The Fountain could have made a movie like mother! If only he could've found a way to mix The Wrestler in there, too. The less said the better, especially when it seems that Aronofsky's goal is to push the weirdness beyond the bounds of reason and logic. Just when it seesm that things can't get any more insane, it multiplies by a factor of ten, until the film takes on an apocalyptic flavor totally unlike what you first signed up for. The change will send you reeling, and you'll either go along with the ride or run for the exits.

I'd suggest sticking around.


While it may seem Aronofsky has let the plot slip out of his control, his fierce grip on the film's core themes shows he is guiding us exactly in the way he wants. Loneliness, vanity, fame's destructive influence on relationships (Something he probably knows his fair share about), and the insanity of religious worship all burn into the fabric of Aronofsky's escalating narrative. Enduring every ounce of punishment is Lawrence, who gives a performance unlike anything we've seen of her before. It comes across as passive at times, but passive isn't really what Lawrence does; she's way too expressive and outwardly tough for that. Cinematographer Matthew Labatique keeps his focus on Lawrence, telling this story from her perspective in a variety of close-ups that uncomfortably put us in her shoes. We can't help but feel sympathy for what she's going through. But that same camera also has the power to objectify, and there comes a point deep into the film when it becomes less about her feelings and more about how she fits into someone else's existence. It's a transition that is, like so much of mother!, a gut punch that will have you rethinking everything you just saw.

mother! works on a number of different levels and will mean something different to everybody who sees it. I haven't been able to figure out what it necessarily means to Aronofsky, but I know he's got some seriously warped thoughts running around in that brain of his. If this is how he lets some of those dark thoughts out into the open to breathe, then we're all winners.


Trav's Tip: Seriously, don't even read the Wikipedia entry on  mother! Just go in knowing as little as possible.

Rating: 4 out of 5