In mother!, Darren Aronofsky accepts his greatest dare – channeling, and replicating, Lars Von Trier’s stylistic anarchism. Not a tremendous leap given Aronofsky’s cataloged signatures, but layers are thicker and more unhinged this time around (parallels to Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We Are The Flesh). As scenes press on, viewers find themselves imprisoned like Jennifer Lawrence’s housebound queen (possibly Mother Earth?). Always asking questions, but Javier Bardem (possibly God?) – or in our case Aronofsky – offering no answers. Expect an artistic endeavor that’ll either strike a rapturously tragic high or go up in flames of frustration, but either way, be sure to share your immediate reaction with a best friend. It’ll be solid gold.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as “Mother,” wife of – right, of course – “Him” (Javier Bardem). Their day begins as any other, but ends with a rapping on the couple’s door. In walks a doctor – known as “Man”(Ed Harris) – who believes their spacious house is a bed and breakfast. With empty rooms nonetheless, Bardem invites Harris to stay, but Lawrence is wary about her new guest. Then Harris’ wife shows up, referred to as – YUP – “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), and it’s revealed that Harris is no visiting doctor – only a mega-fan of Bardem’s poetry. His dying wish was to meet Bardem, and that’s just where Lawrence’s nightmare starts. Sons waltz in (Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson), a funeral reception turns to bedlam, a religious uprising plays out in – wait, no I’ve said too much already.
Shit. Gets. Weird. Must you know more?
Be warned: the marketing for mother! is a bit misleading. Aronofsky’s tone and intention jump around without restraint, but it’s never completely aligned with any trailer’s narrative choices. You’d assume to experience some kind of Satanic birth cult, but instead waltz through Aronofsky’s inquisitive, prodding mind. Each of Lawrence’s days feeling like its own maddened one-take. Sleep deprivation playing into Lawrence’s own paranoia that pulsates both physically and psychologically. It’s like one long dream (nightmare?) where Lawrence is the only sane voice in an increasingly chaotic world (or home, given the singular setting). Bleeding walls, exploding light bulbs, characters appearing out of literal nowhere – don’t expect to be spoon fed.
Aronofsky juggles many deliberate messages throughout the film’s duration, dirtied by a provocateur’s lens. Most prominently, the shackles of a dying marriage tie Bardem and Lawrence to materialistic patchworks that dodge emotional acknowledgment. Bardem searching for “inspiration” – all he sees his wife as – and Lawrence refurbishing the skeleton of her husband’s childhood nest (an act of approval). Pfeiffer enters stage-left to represent the alcohol-medicating family matriarch, always in conflict with Lawrence’s more traditional tenancies. Discomfort ever the catalyst, which rings true through the entirety of mother!.
From here, have fun deciphering which fear Aronofsky wrestles longest to expose. Maybe a battle with relevancy, as struggling-to-write Bardem cares more about Harris’ professional idolization than he does his own wife. Maybe an obvious bastardization of celebrity culture, in which Bardem once again neglects his beloved for the warm glow of camera bulbs and adoring praise. The plight of the creative, unable to separate intoxicating fame from homely pleasures? Maybe it’s a religious uncertainty that positions Bardem as a modern-day prophet, following his rise from mere mortal to actual deity (sacrifices, uprisings, revolts; all contained).
One – myself – might argue that ego is a common thread through these themes that feel so distant, but, in terms of mother!, the only true connection is Bardem’s neglect of Lawrence. Elevation of societal poison plays second fiddle to a man’s dominance over “his” woman, reducing her to nothing more than a childbearing prop. Lawrence fighting for a love long gone, screaming at her spouse about why she isn’t enough. The great gender battle – males losing out as Lawrence stumbles through literal hell (a certain violent outburst is, admittedly, near-impossible to stomach).
MORE FROM THE WEB
Thus begs the question, does Aronofsky wrap it all up in a palatable way? Of course not – that’s never his desire. You will be agitated, pushed and repulsed by some of the imagery mother! favors, and then completely underwhelmed elsewhere. It’s the kind of film where a magic-looking crystal plays importance without necessitating why. Where Lawrence can track her home’s heartbeat, its visual representation rotting over time. Where a rustic prairie mansion turns from metaphor to asylum to frat party to dystopian battlefield to sacrificial chamber to ashy inferno within seconds, minutes and hours. Like throwing hot-takes against a wall and seeing which burns quickest. Is there a reward for such a task?
That is the question, and it’ll be one that’s met with criticism, astonishment and “what-the-fuckery” looks all the same. Bardem charms as Jason Isaacs once did in A Cure For Wellness. Lawrence becomes the fawning victim with a tortured gaze. Aronofsky experiments with suffering, psychosis and plenty of existential rustling; even better when Kristen Wiig or Stephen McHattie are on screen. There’s good here in the form of limitless boundaries and an artist who paints from inside the mouth of madness that’s devouring him whole.
That said? Your toleration of mother! will be determined by movie-going patience. Aronofsky is painting with some blistering broad strokes, but they’re just that – broad and undefined. Ideas splotch and are sometimes hard to distinguish, yet his work still comes together with insidious undertones. Atmosphere gained and lost, viewers struggling to grasp something that resonates. If you’ve got the stamina to keep up with Darren Aronofsky for 120 minutes worth of chanting zealots, broken souls and a constant quest for fulfillment, you might be OK. If not? Don’t expect the Rosemary’s Baby homage being suggested. There’s something more here – hopefully it works for you.
I still don't fully understand how I feel about Aronofsky's latest, but hell, if you're into this kind of crazy, mother! might just be for you!