Mother! (2017)

Writer / Director Darren Aronofsky has never been what you would call ‘mainstream’. I’ve kept an eye on his material going back to his debut in 1998, with the unsettling B/W mini-masterpiece ‘Pi’, which admittedly made a lasting impression on me, despite my distaste for abstract mathematics. From there, he went on to the beautifully ugly ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (2000), ‘The Fountain’ (2006), ‘The Wrestler’ (2008), ‘Black Swan’ (2010), the yet-to-be-seen ‘Noah’ (2014), all leading up to this strange, divisive film. He also wrote the script for what I consider to be a seriously overlooked horror gem; the 2002 haunted WW2 submarine flick ‘Below’ (check it out if you haven’t seen it!). Looking back through those titles, Aronofsky has amassed equal amounts of critical acclaim and controversy from the edgier aspects of his film style; a balancing act that has kept him going for 20 years with various degrees of commercial success. For some reason, I’ve always regarded him in the same sort of vein as David Fincher (‘Se7en’) or Christopher Nolan (‘Memento’)…with an undeniable dash of David Lynch (‘Mulholland Drive’) sprinkled in there too. While all Aronofsky’s films have a dark ‘weird element’ to them, none is more esoteric and against-the-grain than ‘Mother!’.
‘Mother!’ takes place entirely within the confines of one house; a rustic mansion on an expansive piece of rural land, seemingly isolated from everything. The unnamed couple who live there, possible agoraphobe ‘Mother’ (Jennifer Lawrence) and her poet husband ‘Him’ (Jarvier Bardem) live a quiet, peaceful existence, with him struggling through a bout of writer’s block, while she continues renovations to the old mansion, laboring to craft her own domestic paradise. Out of the blue one night, a stranger, known in the script only as ‘Man’ (Ed Harris) arrives at their door, and is inexplicably welcomed in by ‘Him’, to ‘Mother’s chagrin and unease. The next day, a woman claiming to be ‘Man’s wife (Michelle Pfieffer) arrives, and they are both offered open-ended hospitality by ‘Him’, further alarming ‘Mother’. These two people rapidly begin showing toxic character traits, which leads to several conflicts in the house, especially after the two adult sons of this mysterious pair arrive to dispute details in a will. This leads to a violent fight…and a broken skull for one of the sons. This incident prompts the departure of the intruders and life returns to normal for ‘Mother’…until she discovers that the kid didn’t survive by having the entire funeral party arrive at their door, forcing their way in. With the situation spiraling out of control, the normally reserved and mild-mannered ‘Mother’ freaks out and due to a series of burst pipes in the walls, the crowd of obnoxious funeral goers departs. Despite the damage, life moves on. 9 months later, she’s on the verge of giving birth to their first child, when ‘Him’ completes his latest poem; a poem seemingly with the power to capture the devotion of a scary number of fans who swarm the house as ‘Him’s ego and self-delusion take over, leading straight into fanatic cult status. With their house essentially under siege, ‘Mother’s grip on reality begins to slip…and shit gets crazy.
Having now seen this film, I completely believe the stories of walk-outs from festival viewings, in conjunction with the healthy dose of paradoxical critical praise it picked up along the way. At a glance, it seems that this entire film’s reason for being is the fostering of tension and discomfort in the viewer…and to that end, it succeeds wonderfully (not saying that’s a good thing). My girlfriend and I commented a couple times through the 2 hour run-time that the sense of unease and suspense was annoyingly palpable as the oddly paced narrative played out, at times becoming almost frustrating. I know that at the story’s core there are deeper themes relating to the Biblical metaphors, the illusion of control and and the need for security, but at a glance, this is the story of an innocent woman being pushed mentally, spiritually and physically to places that she doesn’t want to go, by a situation that defies logic. It’s almost the very definition of the ‘slow-burn’ method of story telling, but in this case the burn leads to absolute bat-shit craziness…not necessarily for the better.
The cast is solid, with the 4 main leads, Lawrence, Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer all being very capable and proven actors in careers that, in some cases, go back decades. The performances they give all work in the context and tone of the material, but the problem I had was that they didn’t feel like real people, just one-dimensional ‘nobodies’ who we don’t learn anything about. I see how that could be employed deliberately to add ‘mystery’, but it bolstered the movie’s seeming need to hold the you at arm’s length…while it fucked with your head. That being said, I do have to give extra credit to Jennifer Lawrence here, as she effectively and exhaustingly sells the idea of this woman being mentally pulled to the point of breaking. Speaking of ‘breaking’, she allegedly broke a rib hyperventilating in a scene and once you see the movie…it’s easy to imagine that being true. Plus, props to her for her commitment!!
Normally, when I start discussing the technical aspects, I often have something to say about the music…only in this case, there wasn’t any. I mean none. No songs. No score. No need to further manipulate the viewer, as the narrative does a good enough job on it’s own, for what that’s worth. Much of the camera work is hand-held which, in conjunction with Aronofsky’s interesting choice to shoot on 16mm film (industry standard is 35mm), gives the flick a pseudo-documentary feel. It also looks like a lot of natural light was used, which at times left a few scenes and shots overly dark.
Now, the Negatives. Again, I understand why many people would’ve walked out of this movie. It feels like it should be a play on stage and the characters as written and portrayed feel like they should be on that stage…which could easily put some people off. Also, not everyone likes oppressive tension, especially when the pay-off of said tension has questionable narrative value, which is definitely the case here. The last Act is a nightmarish mess which didn’t leave me with a sense that everything that led up to it was worth it. Also not helping is the venomous mean-streak riding in the movie’s under-current. I commented that I wanted to punch every single person that ‘Mother’ ended up interacting with right in their stupid faces, as they all become these nasty pieces of shit that any normal person would just want to get the hell away from. Chief among these was Bardem’s character of ‘Him’, who quickly becomes impossible to relate to, as he makes nonsensical decisions and takes actions that completely fly in the face of logic, for seemingly no reason. There’s also a shocking sequence involving a new-born baby that will DEFINITELY piss some folks off!
All in all, ‘Mother!’ is yet another ‘Aronofsky Special’, in that I’m glad I took the time to watch it, despite its numerous faults, but I can’t see myself EVER seeking ‘Mother!’ out to watch simply for entertainment again. It’s just not one of THOSE movies. I’ll be honest…I’m not sure what audience Aronofsky was aiming this one at, but looking back on some of his previous titles…this one does fit in. It’s just not as narratively cohesive as some of his others and the material is bordering on stand-offish in how is progresses, especially in how weird-for-the-sake-of-weird it gets. ‘Mother!’ is a strange, unpleasant movie crafted for maximum discomfort by a talented group of actors and film-makers who commit to the material, despite how overly ‘artsy’ and arrogantly esoteric the simple, but nasty story is. I can recommend this one to Aronofsky completists and fans of films from polarizing directors like David Lynch (‘Lost Highway’) and Lars Von Trier (‘Melancholia’), but to the average ‘popcorn’ movie-goer, I’d say steer clear. This is NOT a movie for people who just wish to be entertained…it’s for those who want to have their emotions stirred up by dark cryptic imagery and what-do-you-think-happened questions left lingering when the final credits roll.


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