Director Darren Aronofsky is not known for subtlety or crowd-pleasing. Afterall, his indie debut featured a mathematician obsessed with pi and orthodox Jews who thought his work was discovering the true name of God. He delved deep into every facet of drug abuse, focused a character study around a wrestler, used high-end ballet as a backdrop for a psychological thriller, and put Rock Giants in the story of Noah’s Ark. “Iconoclast” probably doesn’t do him justice.
It is no surprise, then, that mother! has ruffled the feathers of so many movie-goers. Some proclaim it to be a new psychological masterpiece, and others feel it it is just a hamfisted and obvious allegory. There’s not much room for both opinions to be right, but I’ll at least say this: the religious parable is obvious and occasionally cloying, but that doesn’t make mother! any less of a majestic mindfuck full of impressive directorial artistry.
The setup of the film is fairly straightforward. Javier Bardem is Him and Jennifer Lawrence is mother, and they both live out in the middle of nowhere in a house that was once destroyed by fire. Him writes, or at least tries to write, while mother renovates the house, bringing it closer to the home that Him knew as a younger man. Ed Harris shows up as Man, an admirer of Him’s previous book. Then his wife Michelle Pfeiffer shows up as Woman. The intrusion is palpable, and only gets worse when their two children show up, followed by a gaggle of other family members.
If you couldn’t tell, the story is absolutely rife with parable. There is a lot of ________ is ________ in mother! and it is the kind of movie where all the latent film students come out of the woodworks to offer their opinion on what it all means. There won’t be any of that here, because the wild ride of where mother! goes is more interesting than this interpretation or that allegory. Enjoy the weirdness of this bizarre ride, and interpret it for yourself.
Still, along the way, there’s some stylistic elements in the filmmaking that may help. From the opening shot of mother, the camera is absurdly close. Whenever Jennifer Lawrence is on screen, Aronofsky allows her face to dominate the show. It’s usually pretty unnerving, like we’re invading this woman’s personal space. Most of the movement of the film comes from tracking shots with a similar closeness. A close camera like this can impart a sense of dread, since we don’t know what could be coming at the character from just beyond the edges of the screen. Also, this is kind of a bottle episode – we don’t ever leave the house, and that allows us to get intimate with the surroundings, and recoil in horror when the houseguests destroy it with abandon.
This invasive camera definitely helps develop the mood. There is a prickly and pervasive kind of discomfort to mother!, like ants crawling over your arms. Black Swan exists in a similar space, especially through the final two acts, but mother! takes it to another level. We can’t trust anything that’s happening, and each character that butts his or her way into the house deserves a slanted eye. It’s unnerving, in a very personal and betraying way. And, when the third act gets into its groove, mother! becomes a full-on trainwreck of literally biblical proportions.
Darren Aronofsky is an enfant terrible for the masses. His films all have an element of shock to them, but in a digestible and fairly approachable way. Requiem for a Dream is a brutal look at addiction, but it also reaches levels of absurdity that imparts the film with a kitchsy vibe. The same could be said of Black Swan, and mother! follows in those same footsteps. This is not to impugn the filmmaking prowess of Aronofsky, as he clearly has a unique vision, impressive craft, and an uncompromising spirit. But at the end of the day, films like mother! all but guarantee that he is more likely to annoy the audience than to inspire them.