If you want to find the most polarizing film of 2017, look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s baroque experiment in psychological horror, mother! (which after this point, I’ll refer to simply as Mother). This is a movie that’s impact I suspect will diminish on a second viewing. Unlocking the secret at Mother’s core, which will probably come at a slightly different point for just about everyone seeing it, robs it of some of its power. Aronofsky has made pure allegory here, using an extreme dream-logic aesthetic that is nothing if not simultaneously hypnotic and terrifying.
The movie begins with a transformation, though one with no context or explanation. We see a dilapidated and destroyed house magically reassemble itself. This newly restored structure is charming, and sits in the middle of idyllic rural beauty. The house is inhabited by Him and Mother, a couple who enjoy their tranquil existence, at least on the surface. Everything festering below comes bubbling up with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, listed in the credits only as Man, and his wife, Woman. There’s only one way to describe what happens next. Everything spirals completely out of control.
There is a lot to unpack in Mother. This is Aronofsky’s most personal film, and any one event can probably be interpreted 100 different ways. When Man shows up unannounced, he claims he thought Him and Mother’s house was a bed and breakfast. When the pleasantries are exchanged, Him introduces Mother as his wife. As they are walking into the next room, away from Mother, we hear Man chuckling, exclaiming that he assumed she was Him's daughter.
Javier Bardem, who is the same age as Aronofsky, 48, plays Him. Jennifer Lawrence is Mother, and is two decades his junior. Lawrence and Aronofsky began dating while filming Mother, and it’s not hard to believe these references to the characters’ age difference were worked in as a response to the reactions they got to their budding romance. Or not. Maybe it’s just coincidence, and that element was included in the screenplay’s first draft, before Lawrence and Aronofsky met. That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about Mother: it’s willful opaqueness lends itself to inventive interpretation.
One of the picture’s downfalls is its director’s naked self-indulgence. Aronofsky is exploring the tortures of his own creative process in Mother. Him is a poet who is struggling with intense writer’s block. The arrival of Man and Woman excites and inspires him, and he is willing to excuse their bizarre behavior, even as Mother becomes irritated and uncomfortable with their presence.
As the events in the house get more and more out of control, Mother’s grasp on reality begins to slip. Her deteriorating mental state serves two purposes. First, Aronofsky uses it as a red herring meant to distract us for as long as possible from figuring out his true intent. That’s a big part of the reason knowing how Mother ends might make subsequent viewings less powerful.
The other reason Aronofsky focuses on Mother’s psychological breakdown is a selfish one. He is fascinated with exploring the trajectory of (mostly) female descent into madness. From Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream to Nina Sayers in Black Swan, it’s one of Aronofsky’s lingering preoccupations.
That focus in Mother results in a kind of sick fascination. The movie may really be chronicling Him’s use of Mother for his own creative ends, but the audience is intimately tied to her point of view, and to her increasing terror. It’s made more effective by the surreal, dream-like quality that engulfs the film.
Director Federico Fellini said, “Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams…” Mother takes this sentiment quite literally. Similar to some of the best work of directors like Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, as well as Fellini, Aronofsky creates a mood in Mother that is akin to a waking dream.
Or a waking nightmare.
Over the course of the movie, to her increasing shock, Mother’s house becomes the site of a memorial service, a raucous house party, and eventually devolves into a war zone and a religious cult worship site. Aronofsky captures incredibly well the feeling of confusion during a dream. At several points, Mother is reduced to chasing people out of private areas of the house.
Jennifer Lawrence’s exasperated cry of “Hey!” as she sees people slip into places they shouldn’t be sums up what it feels like to be in the middle of an anxiety dream. Lawrence turns in a virtuoso performance as the put-upon wife who is losing her sanity an inch at a time. She carries the film, which Aronofsky shoots almost exclusively in close-up. The camera loops and swirls around the house, following Lawrence – who never so much as sets a foot outside of the film’s sole location – as she attempts to keep the interlopers at bay. The camera stays right in her face during much of the movie, and we witness Mother crumble before our eyes.
The feeling of impending dread that permeates every frame of Mother made me physically uncomfortable. This is a movie that gets under your skin. It burrows into the deepest parts of your psyche, takes up residence, and refuses to leave. That won’t be to every moviegoer’s taste; it’s a rough go basically from start to finish. If you can take it, though, Mother promises to be the most unique movie you’ll see all year.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Mother is wholly original. I'm a sucker for dream-logic in movies, and this is one of the most immersive examples of that technique I've ever seen.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Ed Harris plays Man, and Michelle Pfeiffer is transcendent as Woman. She has so much fun playing a character who acts completely against any established social behavior involving strangers.
- Acting brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson turn up for just minutes in a few tense and harrowing scenes.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm going on vacation next week (another National Park trip!), so I doubt I'll be posting anything for a few weeks.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Everyone was well behaved at this screening. There were a group of people right next to me that talked incessantly during the trailers, and I was very worried. They were quiet once the movie started, though. There were a few awkward laughers behind me. You know who I mean: those people who laugh at things on screen that aren't really funny, and you can't understand why the hell they're laughing.