‘mother!’ is unrestrained, bold
Darren Aronofsky and I have a complicated relationship. Well, to be more accurate, his films and I have a charged, complex and often fraught relationship. The common thread among his previous six films is the ability of each to elicit a distinct emotional response from me. “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan” are masterpieces of modern tragedy, while “The Wrestler” is a solid, if unremarkable, film. On the other end of the spectrum, I found “Pi” to be a touch underwhelming and I absolutely loathe both “The Fountain” and “Noah.” Based on those precedents, I really had no idea what to expect from “mother!” other than the fact that it would inevitably provoke a strong reaction. And it most certainly did.
The first thing you need to understand about “mother!” is that the entire story is one gigantic metaphor. If you want to know absolutely nothing about the film before watching it, then you should stop reading right now. That being said, I have no qualms in spoiling the metaphor because I think that knowing some of what to expect before watching this film can genuinely enrich the viewing experience. So here goes: “mother!” is a metaphor for the Bible’s best-of hits. All of the fan favorites show up on the playlist, including some you might not initially notice.
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as Mother (Mother Earth) and Him (God), respectively. They are presented as a married couple living in an ideal home that she is in the process of remodeling while he struggles to write a follow-up to his most recent literary success. One day, “Man” (Ed Harris) and “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer) appear on the couple’s doorstep and decide to take up residence in the house. This is quickly followed by the arrival of their quarrelling sons, paralleling the biblical Cain and Abel. The household soon devolves into utter chaos. So, where does “mother!” fall on the spectrum of Aronofsky’s oeuvre? I’ve had over a week to process the film, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel, though I think I like it.
To be honest: Your enjoyment of this film may rely heavily on your personal experiences regarding religion, specifically Christianity. “mother!” has already been raked over the coals by some critics who feel that it offends their personal beliefs. While I have no desire to divulge my own feelings about Christianity, I will mention that “The Last Temptation of Christ” also outraged several Christian groups, and I think it might be Martin Scorsese’s best work. If you’re liable to be outraged or upset by this film’s commentary, I completely understand and respect your position. But if you’re willing to accept “mother!” for the absolutely insane religious critique that it is, I think the film has some incredibly thought-provoking moments.
Which is not to say that it is without serious flaws; indeed, it has many. One of the more common criticisms has been that the film relies far too heavily on close-ups. I completely agree. If I had to guess, I’d approximate that 90 percent of the shots are close-ups, most of which are dominated by Lawrence’s face. I have no doubt that Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique had symbolic reasons for employing this technique. I’d argue, though, that the symbolic value of your cinematography is significantly diminished if the viewer is distracted by her or his throbbing headache.
I also wish more had been done with the “Woman.” Pfeiffer is probably the most engaging screen presence, but her character seems like a missed opportunity. The depiction of Eve in the Bible has had huge influences on the way women have been portrayed in Western culture over the centuries, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a positive sense. Aronofsky could have really explored this notion in a modern context, but instead, Pfeiffer portrays little more than a nagging wife.
In contrast, I found Bardem’s performance to easily be the most captivating thing in the film. His portrayal of God isn’t particularly likeable (in fact, none of the characters are likeable or relatable), but it is interesting. For one thing, the poet-muse relationship between Him and Mother is used in compelling ways to examine the dynamics of power, gender and fame. For example, we learn over the course of the film that Him has a fragile ego and wants nothing more than validation and love. Moreover, the performance is infused with a certain naiveté, a quality which implies that this deity might not know what to do with his immense powers.
And that’s precisely what appealed to me about this film. You may have heard from other critics that it’s excessively violent and gory and, in a sense, it is. Aronofsky loves insanity on screen and “mother!” is not lacking in that department. Yet the film is still decidedly thoughtful, and its outrageousness feels very intentional. It’s rare for a film these days to provoke such a visceral reaction from viewers, and I’m amazed that a major studio even agreed to finance it. But part of me is glad it did. “mother!” is unruly, wild and often deeply problematic, but that’s also why it makes for a great conversation starter — and that’s worth something.
I could not watch a film like “mother!” every week. I don’t even think I could watch a film like “mother!” every year. But every once in a while, I enjoy seeing a film that is this unrestrained and bold. It lacks the deft human touch of Aronofsky’s best work, to be sure, but it is as mind-boggling as any film he’s ever crafted. It’s not for everyone; it’s not even for most people. Some will love it, and some will hate it. I don’t fall into either camp, though I think when it is all said and done I align more closely with the former rather than the latter.