There aren’t many relatable aspects to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, but it’s easy to relate to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. At least in the beginning. She just wants to hang out in her beautiful house with her poet husband (Javier Bardem) but people just won’t leave her alone. One after the other, strangers show up in her doorstep, and the foolish poet invites them all in to stay in the house as long as they want, not caring about the fact that they’re all horrible house guests. They eat their food, are constantly rude, and basically destroy the house that the couple has built together. But like I said, that’s just the beginning. Things get crazier from there, until the woman’s peaceful world has turned into an inescapable nightmare.
The movie has been advertised as a horror in the style of Rosemary’s Baby, but the resemblance to that kind of story is only partial and superficial. Mother! is something much more grandiose and uncontrolled. The movie doesn’t really take place in any kind of reality. It is one big allegory that’s taken the shape of a fever-dream and doesn’t even try to adhere to the conventions of what a “good narrative” is supposed to be. It is more unsettling and disorienting than it is scary. In a sense, it is a horror movie, but for those movie goers who will go in expecting a psychological thriller and will surely try to get their money back once they realize what they’re actually watching.
Whether or not the movie is any good (I am on the fence about this subject myself), it is an achievement. I tip my hat to Aronofsky for somehow managing to get good money, and from a big Hollywood studio no less, to make such an aggressively uncommercial movie. If you’re the kind of person who finds the idea of jumping into a potentially unsatisfying but wholly unique journey into craziness enticing, then Mother! is definitely worth a watch. On that note, I would also suggest that you stop reading this review and go see it, because the rest of this review is where I explain what I understand Aronofsky’s allegory to be, and why the final reveal of the movie’s intensions left me disappointed. The best way to experience Mother! is to not know anything about it.
You have been warned.
I’m not here to psychoanalyze anybody, but I think Darren Aronofsky might still be working out some aspects of his divorce. The most basic way to explain the movie’s premise -Bardem focuses all his energy on his work and audience adulation, his wife suffers for it- makes it sound familiar. We’ve seen movies about geniuses and their tortured wives before. Aronofsky is just doing two things differently. First, he’s flipping the script, focusing on the inspiring muse rather than the artist. Second, he’s trying to explore this dynamic through the biggest most popular artistic genius in western culture: God. So, basically, the movie is about how it would really suck to be God’s wife.
Aronofsky is also an environmental activist, so Lawrence’s character -who is never referred to by name and is credited as “the mother”- has a strong mother earth vibe to her. Her main activity when the movie starts is remodel the house in which she lives. In her own words, she wants to “build paradise.” Meanwhile, her husband -the poet- writes. That’s until a man comes around (Ed Harris), and the poet invites him to stay with them. Shortly after, the man’s wife shows up (a magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer). Then their children, and so on… Not only are these people destroying the beautiful house she’s built, but the poet is more interested in the adoration of these strangers than his wife’s love. It all seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s kind of my problem with it. Mother! seems to combine the personalities of two of Aronofsky’s most successful movies. It feels a lot like Black Swan in that it takes inspiration from the early work of Roman Polanski, and in that it is often exaggerated and silly in its approach to horror. Black Swan, however, is campier, less pretentious, and ultimately more fun to watch. On the other hand, the movie resembles Requiem for a Dream in that both movies take one idea (“drugs are bad” then, “god’s wife suffers” now) and make a whole movie out of it, relentlessly hammering the point home again and again. That’s why Mother! is best experienced unspoiled. Trying to figure out what’s going on gets the mind rolling, but once you piece the puzzle together, you are left with a very obvious answer. There’s not much to take away once you’ve cracked the metaphor.
That’s the risk of making a movie that is purposely obtuse about its themes, you just can’t manufacture profundity. Which is not to say that this is necessarily a bad movie. There is a lot of great filmmaking in service of this allegory. Arofnosky’s direction, especially towards the end, when the house has turned into a chaotic hellspace, is quite virtuosic. He sticks to Lawrence’s point of view, and moves us from room to room seamlessly. It’s all very disorienting, with only the sound design there to guide us. The result is overwhelming, and often unpleasant. It is ultimately an ugly looking movie. The cinematography, by longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique, goes for a dull color palette that makes Lawrence’s golden hair look brownish grey. It’s often very dark, and ungenerous to the few black actors in the movie, mushing their faces into the background.
It’s not a pleasant movie to sit through, but it’s definitely an experience. When all is said and done, it fits comfortably with the previous movies in Aronofsky’s career. As a matter of fact, this is probably the “most Aronofsky” of his movies, allowing the director to unleash his stylistic id thanks to the guiding structure of the scripture he is trying to allegorize. Honestly, my main complaint with the movie is that there’s not enough Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s only the first section of the movie, and she fucking kills it. The woman is a freaking movie star, why isn’t every director writing movies for her?