Mother!Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/14/17 01:34:11
The advance word on “mother!,” a film whose production was shrouded in such secrecy that most people did not even know of its existence until a couple of months ago, has been that it is one of the most grueling and brutally visceral cinematic experiences to hit movie screens in a long time, especially for one getting a wide release from a major studio. Considering the fact that it was made by Darren Aronofsky, the guy behind such dark and bizarre films as “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan,” that is a mighty bold assertion to make. For once, the hype turns out to be true because it is possibly the most sensorially overwhelming and formally radical films to be given a major release since Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and there is an excellent chance that a large portion of the multiplex crowd that turns out for it based on the presence of superstar Jennifer Lawrence or even lingering affection for the unexpectedly successful “Black Swan” is going to hate it with a fiery passion. And yet, what will those who made it all the way to the bitter, brutal end when the film is done and the smoke, literally and metaphorically, has cleared? Some will no doubt find it to be a powerful cinematic meditation on life, love, art, religion, gender roles and any number of other heavyweight subject while others will undoubtably consider it to be a pretentious wank that doesn’t know what it is trying to say but figures that if it throws enough things against the wall in the most relentless manner imaginable, enough of them will stick to create the appearance of something meaningful. Personally, I find myself somewhere in the middle of those two viewpoint because while “mother!” is an undeniably ambitious work that contains any number of powerful moments and images surrounding the quartet of fine performances at its center, the film as a whole spends half of its time threatening to go over the edge into complete absurdity and the rest of the time on the other side of that line. When it was all over, Watching it is indeed an experience but it is one that, for all the huffing and puffing, is all a bit silly when all is said and done.Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a married couple whose names we never learn but who are identified in the credits only as “mother” and “him” (and I can almost hear some of you groaning that this is going to be one of those movies. Bardem is a poet who has been struck with a crippling case of writer’s block ever since a fire destroyed his isolated Victorian mansion and everything inside of it, including his first wife, with the exception of a mysterious crystal which he discovered amid the rubble and believes to be a symbol of hope for the future. Lawrence is his much younger second wife who devotes all of her time to restoring their home to its former self while silently fretting about why Bardem seems so disinterested in her and the idea of having a child. Their vague sense of tranquility is broken one evening when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of an odd older man (Ed Harris). He claims to be an orthopedic surgeon and has supposedly landed on their doorstep under the impression that the house is actually a bed-and-breakfast. Cool and aloof to his own wife, Bardem is instantly gregarious and forthcoming towards this stranger—especially after he reveals himself to be a fan of his poetry—and impulsively offers to let him spend the night. Lawrence is appalled that he would just allow a stranger to stay with them but she is now placed in an impossible situation and agrees to let him spend the night.
The weirdness continues the next morning when it becomes apparent that the stranger did not just happen upon the house at random. For one, Lawrence finds a photograph of Bardem in the guy’s luggage—not surprisingly, Bardem is more concerned about her going through the guy’s bag than the possibility that he is some kind of stalker. Then the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) drops by and instantly makes herself at home as well. She is a real piece of work who is just a little too loud and pushy and brassy—the kind who meets a person for the first time and within five minutes is asking them intimate questions about their sex life. Inexplicably, Bardem is charmed by this intrusion and offers to let them stay for as long as they want and when his wife protests, he admonishes her for being unwilling to be friendly and to open herself to new experiences. (The visitors also give him a chance to avoid dealing with his writer’s block.) Lawrence tries to cope with the intrusions, periodically spiriting off to the bathroom to take a mysterious golden elixir, but the already fraught tensions escalate rapidly with the unexpected arrival of the couple’s squabbling adult sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). At this point, which comes roughly a third of the way through the film, I will stop recounting aspects of the narrative, partly so as to preserve the number of surprises that lay ahead and partly because even if I did reveal them, most of you would assume that I was joking.
Up until this point in the proceedings, I was pretty much all in with the film. I have been a fan of all of Aronofsky’s work, even his oddball Bible epic “Noah,” and he is certainly firing on all stylistic cylinders here with the look of the rambling house, the rough-and-ready cinematography by longtime collaborator Matthew Liabtique that favors extended shots with a rapidly swirling camera that throws any number of disconcerting close-ups into the mix and an intricate sound design that needs to be heard to be believed. (If you do go to see it, make sure to catch it someplace with a top-notch sound system.) The performances are all good and intense with Pfeiffer more or less stealing the show whenever she turns up. (She delivers an eye roll that, as many have already noted, is destined to go down as a classic Internet meme for as long as such things are allowed to exist.) Most importantly and intriguingly, I had no idea at this point where the film was going. Was it going to be a dark comedy of manners in the mode of Bunuel or the underrated John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd vehicle “Neighbors” in which ordinary people attempt to deal with bizarre and wildly antisocial behaviors by acting polite and trying to ignore the problem altogether. Was it going to turn into some variation of a home invasion thriller in the manner of the Michael Haneke creepfest “Funny Games”? Was it finally going to go from the metaphorical horrors of having strangers traipse through your immaculately designed house and mess things up to become a straight-up horror film, a possibility suggested by an advertising campaign for the film that is clearly meant to suggest the Roman Polanski classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” (Hey, the very first line of dialogue in it is “Baby?”) I genuinely did not know what to expect—a refreshing change from watching one movie after another where one can surmise most of the key story beats just by looking at the trailer—and was eager to see what was coming next.
As the rest of “mother!” unspooled, however, I began to get the distinct situation that Aronofsky himself did not have a clear idea as to where he was going with it. Visually, it gets more and more aggressive as it goes along and the whole thing soon becomes a relentless cacophony of imagery that is by turns violent, sexual or just plain weird. From a technical standpoint, it is pretty amazing—I can’t wait for the inevitable “American Cinematographer” article to explain how some of it was accomplished—but even though I usually do not have much of a problem with visual excess and bombast, the endless barrage of baroque visuals left me more stunned than anything else. This is a film that starts off on a fever pitch and not only manages to crank it up from there but pretty much keeps up the frenetic pace for two solid hours of screen time. At a certain point, it all becomes a little too much and most viewers—myself included—may find themselves wishing that they could stop the film and take a few minutes to collect themselves before pressing forward. It would be silly, I suppose, to critique the film for being excessive—that excessiveness is one of its central components—but at the same time, I cannot help but think that I might have enjoyed it a little more if portions of it, especially in the last third or so, had been shortened a bit in order to give the rest of it time to sink in and marinate because as it is, things go by so quickly that little of it ever gets a chance to sink in.
You don’t have to be a film theorist to figure out early on that the events in “mother!” are not meant to be taken literally but how exactly are we supposed to read them from a metaphorical standpoint. Is it meant to be a further and bleaker exploration of the intertwining notions of religion and apocalypse that Aronofsky has explored previously in “Pi” and “Noah”? Should it be read as a critique of the artistic process and an examination of certain practitioners who outwardly claim to be only about the work but who are quick to embrace the trappings of fame and adulation when they happen to come their way? Is it an analogy for man’s raping of the environment with Lawrence meant to be read as Mother Earth herself? Is it meant to examine the pitfalls of contemporary marriage and how it can founder when one half of the couple in question all but demands all of the available love and affection for themselves. Is it meant to be an exploration of gender roles themselves, especially regarding what it means to be a mother. Could it be that the preponderance of possible metaphorical readings—and I have only scratched the surface here—are nothing but a goof that Aronofsky is having at the expense of his fans, who have greeted all of his films with intense and sometimes frighteningly detailed analysis of every possible aspect on display and then some? I could not say what it could be for sure but watching the film, I never got the sense that Aronofsky had a clear idea of what he was going for here and instead on settling on one or two metaphorical through lines to work from, he decided to pile the possibilities on like he has done here with his film references (which range from the obvious touchstones of “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby” to obscurities like Peter Greenaway’s notorious “The Baby of Macon”) in the hopes that something would come through, which is not the case as it turns out.Because I do not think that “mother!” pulls itself together in the end or, barring that, pulls itself apart in interesting ways, I cannot bring myself to recommend it despite my admiration for Aronofsky, the actors and the fact that something this weird actually exists in multiplexes side by side with likes of “Home Again” or “American Assassin.” If nothing else, it is a film where there is never a moment when it is not swinging for the fences. Who knows, perhaps I will one day come around to it or, at the very least, continue to return to it over the years in the way that I do with “A Clockwork Orange,” another audacious work from a favorite filmmaker that I have never been able to fully embrace despite my admiration for it on a technical level. As the closing credits roll, we hear punk goddess Patti Smith crooning a song with appropriately apocalyptic lyrics. The song is fine but I couldn’t help but think that a cover of “Is That All There Is?” might have been a little more appropriate.
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