Another year, another divisive Darren Aronofsky film. The fervour that critics get into over his work, either to condemn or praise, is almost exhausting, if only because it’s the expected reaction at this point. But I guess that’s better than indifference, which, exceptions aside, is how I’ve feel about the majority of what I’ve seen in the cinema lately: bland, forgettable stories presented/edited in a bland, forgettable way. An unpleasant percentage of this year’s cinematic output – off the top of my head, The Dark Tower, Flatliners, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (the last of which I’m extremely sad to have to put on this list) – has been unforgivably dull.
Just to be clear, this is not me being a film snob. I’ll happily forgive a film for not being overly original if it at least has something going for it, some visual or narrative flare, an interesting character/performance – just something to tell me that someone on some level of the production really cared about it.
But I’ll get to my point. Love or hate them, you can’t say Aronofsky’s films don’t have some sort of visual or narrative flare, and you definitely can’t say that anyone involved with them is phoning it in.
For the most part, I’m a big fan of his films. Requiem for a Dream is as harrowing and inventive as Clint Mansell’s listen-on-endless-repeat score, not to mention featuring a Jared Leto before he become the method-acting wanker we know today. The Fountain – with another, arguably even better, Mansell score – is an ambitious, beautiful sci-fi love story that embraces its own bold weirdness and works all the better because of it. Black Swan is a crisp, creepy psychological horror, in part a love letter to the Giallo horror films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Noah is a batshit crazy, visually orgasmic take on the famous Biblical story, complete with stone angels and two insane performances from Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone.
Aronofsky’s latest, mother!, its lowercase title punctuated with an exclamation mark, is both as hysterical and annoying as said title suggests. I liked it though, or I think I did. I definitely liked parts of it. I didn’t not like it, at least?
It’s incredibly ambitious, and goes in a direction you don’t at first suspect. Personally I think it’s one of his most problematic films, but also one of his most interesting. I still find myself thinking about it even a couple of weeks after watching it, my head buzzing with its escalating weirdness, and the ideas it throws around like blood in a slaughterhouse.
When I saw the film’s trailer (which you can watch here), I thought it was a work of art in itself, a sharp, scratchy rhythm of image, sound and text that disturbs and delights all at once. On one hand it encapsulates the tone of the film itself, but on the other it doesn’t come close to revealing what it’s really about. (Not that I’m complaining. In these days of trailers giving away every damn plot point, this can only be a good thing.) What looks like a straightforward horror film is actually something much more, and much weirder.
The basic plot of mother! follows Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed woman (referred to as Her, or Mother in the credits) living in a newly refurbished house in what looks like the tranquil middle of nowhere with Javier Bardem’s Him, a poet struggling with writer’s block. Soon, the couple’s idyll is disturbed by the arrival of Ed Harris and later his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer (Man and Woman, respectively), whose extended stay and strange behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing for Lawrence’s character. To say that the situation escalates from there would be a massive understatement.
This is Aronofsky’s first film that hasn’t featured a music score from his go-to composer, Clint Mansell. I’ve said that I’m a big fan of their work together, so I found this a little disappointing. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – whose work on Sicario and Arrival is incredible – is credited as the “sound and music consultant”. In lieu of a traditional score, then, the film employs a creeping, creaking soundscape that follows and circles and stalks Jennifer Lawrence through the house, from room to room and from danger to danger.
Along with the intimate over-the-shoulder camera-work, this makes for an unsettling experience. I don’t know if this film is really all that enjoyable or entertaining in the strictest sense, but it’s not really supposed to be. Everything here – the sound design, the cinematography, the performances, the disturbing escalation of events – is all very effective in making the viewer uncomfortable even as they remain fascinated.
For the first half, anyway. Before the proverbial shit hits the fan, mother! plays out like a very well made psychological thriller with a fantastic hallucinatory edge. I felt as uncomfortable, bewildered and claustrophobic as Lawrence’s protagonist seems too. These strange, creepy people in her house, the escalating sense of terror that soon becomes literal and immediate. One brilliant scene involving a secret door in the basement made me think that the film was moving towards the occult, but the direction it takes from here is very different.
After this, when the chaos really kicks in, the film loses some of its flare and momentum. Inside the house – a setting we never leave – crazy piles upon crazy in an ugly, almost annoying way. A few scenes involving soldiers seem a bit too ridiculous and don’t really gel with the previously established atmosphere. Just when you think events can’t go any further, they do, and while this does culminate in a brutal, gorgeous ending, I can’t help but feel a little let down by some of the insanity that came before. I like what Aronofsky does with the story, but I feel like he could have executed it in a less screechy, handheld way. Something with a bit more visual intensity would have worked much better before that incredible ending, and might have made the film’s symbolism a bit more digestible.
For me, that symbolism is one of mother!’s downfalls. Not the symbolism itself, maybe, but the way it’s shoved in the audience’s face, the glaringly literal obviousness of it. There are more than a few Biblical references in there; after a while the film’s practically teeming with them. Some work, while others are very on-the-nose.
It’s not that I have a problem with what mother! is about, but in a way that seems to be all it’s really about. The allegory, the metaphors and symbolism, that’s essentially the film. The surface is the subtext, and Aronofsky seems so intent on conveying this, he’s forgotten to give us something more than that.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of the film is how gleefully nasty it is in its treatment of Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist, effectively a muse for Javier Bardem’s creatively blocked poet. There’s no descent from human to monster for Bardem here; from the opening shots he’s never a sympathetic or even very complex character. The same could be said for every “character” here, Lawrence included. The performances are all searing and powerful to watch, but some have more of a focus than others. Ed Harris and Domhnall Gleeson are criminally underutilised, although Stephen McHattie does a great job with a creepy extended cameo.
But beyond the roles everyone plays, the only humanity on show here is its ugly, messy, chaotic side. Without giving too much away, though, this seems to be the point, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Again, everything’s symbolic, but whether these elements stand up on their own is another question. I just don’t know if it’s a question that anyone needs to bother asking, let alone answering.
I’m sure there are other interpretations to be gleaned from mother!, and of course not everyone will come to the same conclusions. I’m not even sure I can truly decide how I feel about this film. Some of the threads it toys with in terms of Bardem’s struggle with artistic expression, the treatment of Lawrence’s character, and the literal events playing out onscreen are pretty disturbing, but I keep swinging between feeling a little bit angry and disgusted about this, and wondering if maybe it works for exactly that reason.
Whatever I ultimately think of it, though, at least I do actually think of it, which is something to be thankful for in this year’s dribble of forgettable Hollywood sewage.
But that doesn’t make mother! – or its annoyingly punctuated title – any less irritating, fascinating, disappointing and thought-provoking.