Bold, pretentious, and divisive, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller is an exhilarating (and exhausting) cinematic experience.
The alluring insanity of mother! resides in its open invitation to decipher the boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical. For Aronofsky -- a writer-director who dances effortlessly between his fevered imagination and the crushing pathos of modern life -- this boundary is an artificial distinction. Narrative structure is less a function of storytelling than a means by which he attacks ideas. Though his sloppiness (and productivity) couldn't be less Kubrickian, Aronofsky (Noah 2014, Black Swan, 2010) shares Kubrick's knack for translating the human condition into compelling, if confounding, cinema.
Aronofsky is determined to break this complex matter into its most elemental form. The entirety of the film plays out in a dilapidated old house and quickly takes on the claustrophobic feel of a stage play. The camerawork is sparse, swirling and pivoting like a handheld voyeur, occasionally dancing close enough to almost hear the thoughts of each actor. The soundtrack is bereft of a proper musical score. The only musicianship comes from the creaking house, distant crickets, and muffled footsteps on hardwood floors, which combine to create a soundscape of desolation and increasing desperation.
The characters are even stripped of their names; assigned the simplest of archetypes. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) shuffle about the oversized house, preoccupied with their own malaise. Him is a poet suffering from a Biblical case of writer's block. The blank page mocks his impotence, driving him deeper into self-imposed exile.
Mother fills her days with construction projects around the house and walking on eggshells around Him. They have no children. Mother's only child is the house itself, which she rebuilt after a fire. Her only comfort is the pulsing heartbeat she imagines as she lovingly caresses its half-plastered walls. Yeah, Mother and Him have some issues.
Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer reminding us how much we've missed her) unexpectedly arrive on their doorstep, mistakenly figuring the ginormous house to be a Bed & Breakfast. Tensions escalate as the over-protective Mother bristles with each new intrusion. Aronofsky tightens his focus on Mother as Him grows increasingly enamored with their guests. Her isolation, part self-inflicted and part learned helplessness, is the only thing that gives her life meaning.
“We spend all our time here," Mother explains to a boozy and brazen Woman. “I want to make a paradise." Woman's dismissive reply, “This is all just… setting," cuts Mother to the quick, and re-ignites the desires and regrets she's worked so hard to repress.
To reveal more of the plot machinations would be a crime. To explain the levels of insanity and chaos would be a massive understatement. Things get bat-shit crazy… and then they get even crazier.
The joy is truly in the journey, which takes its sweet time admiring the abyss before finally plunging into oblivion. Along the way, we must grapple with enormous concepts; family, God, salvation, environmentalism, self-destruction, and a creepy crystal that Him spends entirely too much time admiring. It's a heady, sometimes confusing beast that leaves you wondering if Aronofsky is fully in control of his own creation.
Apparently written over a frenzied five-day period, mother! contains tantalizing conceptual and thematic gaps. Whether these gaps are intentionally incorporated into the script or merely reside beyond the reaches of Aronofsky's creative grasp is debatable, but the end result is an undeniably fascinating treatise on artistic freedom run amok. Just what the characters represent and what Aronofsky intended to achieve is all fodder for longer, more esoteric conversations.
Aronofsky relies heavily upon his actors to maintain a relatable core, and each member of the cast delivers splendidly. Bardem's expressive face and commanding voice make Him an irrepressible presence, particularly in his manipulation of Mother's fragile psyche. There's more than a hint of Rosemary's Baby hiding in the darkened corners of mother! as Aronofsky tackles the Patriarchy in all its condescending glory.
But the show definitely belongs to Lawrence. This is a courageous performance, both psychologically and physically. As Mother slowly comes unhinged, Lawrence sinks deeper and deeper within herself to reach that desperation. You can almost smell the panic on her breath as she watches this hermetically sealed world crumble upon itself. Lawrence flings herself against walls, onto floors, and sacrifices every shred of glamour to capture Aronofsky's tortured vision.
Just how much you enjoy mother! will largely depend upon your patience and your willingness to indulge the pretentious artistry. Not all of it works, but the audacity and depth of Aronofsky's vision are startling. This is a filmmaker willing to take big chances. Here's hoping audiences take a chance on mother!