Would you believe me if I told you that mother! is the closest Darren Aronofsky has ever come to making a comedy?
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, mother! is a film that makes even a basic plot synopsis near impossible. A May-October couple (whose characters are never named in the film) move into their new house, a fixer-upper that looks like it came from the same realtor responsible for the gothic mansion in Crimson Peak. Soon they receive uninvited guests: An older couplethis time played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harrismake themselves at home. The woman (Lawrence) wants them to leave. Her lover (Bardem) can’t seem to let them go. They serve as a necessary distraction from the poem he keeps putting off writing.
The first third is a Polanski-esque comedy of discomfortthe high tension of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan employed to quasi-satirical effect. But you probably won’t laugh. It’s not that kind of funny. This is the same man who made Requiem for a Dream, after all.
There’s a terrific scene, for instance, of Pfeifferso ravenous she’s practically licking her lipsanalyzing her hosts’ relationship. Why haven’t they had a child, she wonders? At first, the older woman (who also does not receive a name) assumes that Lawrence’s character doesn’t want a baby. But then she zeroes in on another culprit: lack of intimacy. To witness this scene is to watch a vulture slowly pick apart her prey, until the viewer can practically smell the carcass through the screen. Lawrence, who usually plays characters of steely resolve, is meek. She relents, perhaps because she thinks this ordeal will be over soon. It won’t.
mother! quickly spins out of control as more guests pile in. First, the older couple’s Cain and Abel-like sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) arrive to hash out a long-simmering feud, one that has tragic consequences. Their arrival is followed by a sea of the poet’s fans: He finally finishes his masterwork and adoring fans arrive to praise the man’s achievement. In a scene of giddy absurdity, the poet lands a book deal and publishes a novel in a matter of seconds. (If you were unaware this is supposed to be humorous, Kristen Wiig shows up to tip the film’s hand.)
But as his fans continue to seek the writer out, it becomes clear: No one is leaving.
At every moment in mother!, Aronofsky is raising the stakesseeing how far he can push his audience until they break. The filmmaking is impeccable, but the film itself is not designed to be liked. During its final stretches, mother! transforms into the psychological horror film its trailers promised; it’s a Goya painting come to life, countless hands pulling Lawrence’s character down into the flames of hell. The film is at turns a critique of the narcissism of male directors and the ways in which Hollywood sacrifices young women on that altar. Another bright-eyed ingenuea new “It Girl”will be waiting in the wings to take the young woman’s place.
Astute readers will notice that I have largely withheld my opinion of the movie until now. That is perhaps because mother! is many things all at once. Aronofsky’s seventh feature is alternatively maddening and revelatory, pretentious and brilliant, ridiculous and altogether one of a kind. It’s hard to have anything but a weird form of respect for a movie that barrels through a refugee crisis, a fascist uprising, and a war zone in the span of a few seconds. It’s like Joseph Heller on speed.
If any of that sounds appealing to you, then you might be the film’s target demographic. I count myself among you.
I am both deeply grateful that a movie this uniquely insane existsespecially with the backing of a major studioyet hesitate to recommend it. There’s a scene of shocking, taboo-busting violence that was a dealbreaker for the audience I saw it with, many of whom left cursing the screen. Readers will know what I’m talking about when they see it. Oddly enough, that was less repulsive to me than the film’s treatment of its heroine. Lawrence’s character is beaten, sexually assaulted, humiliated, and almost burned to death. Few protagonists in film history are ever put through the ordeal to which her character is subjected; even when the viewer thinks it’s over, Aronofsky pushes further.
As a critic, I feel that violence against women has to be redemptive. For a movie to justify the brutality its female characters experience, there must be an arcsome sort of indication that this savagery serves a greater purpose. The violence in mother! is both relentless and fully exacting. Lawrence’s character has everything taken from her, until there is nothing left. There exists not even the faintest glimmer of hope in the film’s final moments.
That unsettled me, but not in the way its makers intended. A film about characters who lose control should not lose control of its own narrative.
It’s likely that readers will feel differently about mother! than I did. Many will pick apart every word of this review and find fault with my conclusions: “How dare you find any of this funny?” It’s a film that has inspired fierce debate amongst moviegoers, and viewers will likely debate it with themselves. But when the dust subsides, I suspect that the public will view mother! as either a masterpiece or a bloated love-letter to its as ego. I lack the crystal ball to say which.