Reviews

'mother!' Is Poignant and Powerful, and Not At All Pleasant

This is a grotesque, two-horned beast of a marital drama, a nightmarish vision of emotional abandonment and psychological abuse, all for the sake of art.


mother!

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2017
US Date: 2017-09-15
UK Date: 2017-09-15
Website
Trailer

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is one of those rare movies -- like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible -- that is impeccably constructed, technically brilliant, boasts outstanding performances, is absolutely brimming with artistry and ambition, but is so punishing and painful to watch that it feels impossible to recommend to a friend for fear that they’ll ultimately blame their inevitable, crippling, post-movie PTSD on you.

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise to those familiar with Aronofsky’s work; many of his films, like the powerful but nauseating Requiem for a Dream, are strenuous and icky, to say the least. Steeped in twisted symbolism and unnerving imagery, mother! fits snugly into the filmmaker’s catalogue and will no doubt alienate many, if not most, moviegoers who buy their tickets expecting a witty thriller about a contentious mother/daughter relationship. This is a grotesque, two-horned beast of a marital drama, a nightmarish vision of emotional abandonment and psychological abuse, all for the sake of art.

Following the quaint-turned-chaotic life a couple living in a countryside mansion, the film is a layered metaphor for the age-old artist/muse convention, in which Aronofsky has been a participant. The story circles the idea slowly at first and then gradually builds momentum until it spirals nearly out of control, with each act more deranged and calamitous than the last. While interpretations of the twisty parable will likely vary slightly from person to person, what seems clear is that Aronofsky made the film as a way to address and work through some personal demons, though the guy seems to be a bit too hard on himself. There’s a difference between self-critique and self-loathing, and with mother! he ventures deep into the latter.

Javier Bardem plays “Him”, a poet plagued with writer’s block and a proxy for Aronofsky himself. As personal as the movie seems to be, it does not center on Him, but rather His Her, or “Mother”, played by Jennifer Lawrence. While He is constantly entrenched in his writing (or lack thereof), She remodels and redecorates their Victorian home, experimenting with different paints and rugs and fixtures to ultimately create what she calls “paradise”. The friction between them feels like familiar domestic drama fare at the outset: He’s loving but distant, She feels alone, undervalued, and overworked in her own home. When an older couple show up at their doorstep (played by Ed Harris and a devilish Michelle Pfeiffer), the tone blackens and tensions rise, but it’s still familiar territory.

Then things get weird. More and more strangers barge into the house (either invited by Him and not Her, or not invited at all), treating it as their own, extolling Him and ignoring Her as they rearrange the furniture and repaint the walls. Then they smash the furniture, smash the walls, and smash past Her as they stomp up the stairs and into forbidden rooms. What pervades as we watch the impudent invaders trash the place is a sickening feeling of personal violation on behalf of Her. Lawrence is well cast here; she’s got some of the most expressive eyes in the business, and she makes us feel every bit of her frustration, anger, and terror as she watches her would-be paradise burn to the ground. If anything, the young actress is over-equipped, capable of handling far more complexity than the underwritten role requires.

Ratcheting up the insanity of the later scenes is the cinematic presentation, which is typically top-notch for Aronofsky and co. The hellish imagery is presented largely from Lawrence’s perspective, with the camera staying uncomfortably tight behind her shoulder, limiting our view. The resulting sense of claustrophobia and disorientation is paralyzing. The sound design contributes as much as the visuals; every floorboard creak and scream reverberate throughout the house, forcing you to anxiously wonder which room each mysterious noise is coming from. This is powerful, often painful, paranoia-inducing cinema.

It’s difficult to discuss mother! in detail without spoiling the experience. Most of the plot developments after the first act are genuinely shocking, and they cumulatively service Aronofsky’s core conceit so specifically and uniquely that revealing them would be a disservice. What’s safe to say is that the absurdity, brutality, and disturbing nature of the final act is so extreme that the movie is destined to disgust general audiences and even perturb open-minded cinephiles.

Most moviegoers won’t find much to like about Aronofsky’s psychotic, fever-dream allegory. The central metaphor is fascinating, but rather than deepening as the movie progresses, it simply gets louder and more outlandish. At the same time, to say mother! is poorly made or ill conceived would be off base.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.