Director: Darren Aronofsky
Date: 17 September 2017
jamesintexas rating: ***
A frantic, frenetic, claustrophobic journey through the unraveling of a life, mother! succeeds on the level of cinematic craftsmanship while faltering under the weight of its own self-importance. The exclamation point intentionally reveals Aronofsky's motif of writing and creating Art (emphasis here on the capital A) which courses through the film, as well as signals the hyperbolic frenzy that is to be expected from the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah. Aronofsky has tackled gigantic, weighty issues in his films before while displaying visceral commitment to body horror and obsession. He is never uninteresting, and much of what is completely captivating by mother! is the commitment to tight medium and close-up shots of the eponymous matriarch (Jennifer Lawrence) and the poet, referred to in the credits as Him (Javier Bardem) as we begin the film locked inside of a creaking, ominous country house with work spaces and spacious kitchens and lots of rooms to wander into and out of in search of someone. He is creatively blocked and cannot write a word; she works steadily on rehabbing the house by painting it, when not cooking meals for them. However, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The haunted house motifs, strange behavior of Him, as well as the mounting dread culminate in a marvelously uncomfortable extended scene that begins with a doctor, The Man (Ed Harris) knocking on their door looking for a room and sanctuary for the night. It could possibly be case of taking in a lost person, but there's more than meets the eye, quickly. In nods to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a far superior film), Aronofsky compresses time and has The Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive to comfort the man, and things begin to escalate and escalate and spiral out of control. And despite brief interludes where Mother seems to be listening to and feeling kinship with the building itself (which is alive?), the sequences have a lucid, fever-dream quality that keeps jumping up in tone and severity that is only enhanced by Aronofsky's tight camera shots and swirling through maze-like rooms, following Mother. Without revealing much more, the film traces the line of The Artist as God in our culture, and the costs of such worship, before it goes completely off the rails by the third act where a commitment to entropy envelops the film as it returns to its opening, fiery shot.
mother! is not as shocking as it attempts to be, though it is hard to be shocking when it keeps staring at you dead in the face and screaming out loud, "Look at how shocking I am!" Aronofsky is trying so hard. Instead, I view this work as an atmospheric tone poem, a long extended meditation on Art (with a capital A) and its emotional costs within the self and others. Kind of. Without more complexity, Jennifer Lawrence's character serves as a vessel for Javier Bardem's fears, anxieties, and more without being much more than a cipher. And at times, I didn't feel that Lawrence was up to the work of the character's constant searching and unraveling which plays against her work as intelligent, fierce heroines (see Rhee Dolly in Winter's Bone). Is Aronofsky trying to unpack the male desire to create in response to the female ability to give birth? Is this all a modernized, tricked-out retelling of The Book of Genesis in the Bible with its many allusions to The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, being cast out, Cain and Abel, and more? Aronofsky has greatness within him in the film's construction and especially its insidious music and sound design by Johann Johannsson, who was the elegant Oscar-nominated composer behind Arrival and The Theory of Everything, and here he uses voices as sound, echoing and buzzing off of creaking floorboards, doors being shut and open, spoons clattering against the edges of cups, all to ominous, eerie effect. It is a tour-de-force performance of sound. And when Mother leaves the room, she still hears most of the conversations, muffled but clear, as she tries to enter another part of the house but has to contend with the lingering words from other parts. Lawrence struggles at times here to be compelling, and I think that has to do with the way her character is conceived and written; Bardem has the full-blown egomania of The Artist at work in a bigger performance, though really a supporting one. The rest of the cast are excellent, with Michelle Pfeiffer being a stand-out. In Pfeiffer's scenes with Jennifer Lawrence, she stands toe-to-toe with her, uses her physicality and eye-rolling and devours her, in both words and actions, reminding us of Pfeiffer's cinematic power and great skill as an actress. I want to see more of her, please.
I'm still buzzing the morning after watching such a busy, strange, frenzied work which has some genuinely upsetting moments and seems fixed in the chaotic oeuvre of Aronofsky's other work and pet themes. I'm not sure that I want to watch this film ever again, and I understand its seemingly divisive reception upon its release this week. mother! is stressful and upsetting to watch. Part of the morning, I spent helping other teachers and community members rip out parts of a student's recently flooded home here in Houston, and as I pried up boards and nails, cracked out wood with crow bars, the old adage of "destruction being much easier than construction" resonated anew within me. I think that Aronofsky's commitment to destroying as he simultaneously creates results much of the vertigo that I experienced, but there is the lingering sting of wanting more from this film and its cipher characters than just a demolition derby and Bible concordances.