If nothing else, it’s astounding that Darren Aronofsky was able to get ‘mother!’ produced at a Hollywood studio and spat out into wide release. The film starts off like a queasy paranoid psychological horror thriller, but eventually departs into full-on surrealist nightmare territory.
What the filmmaker is getting at (beyond unsettling and freaking out his audience) is open to interpretation. It’s likely some sort of perverse twist on motherhood and artistic creation, but who knows? Probably only Aronofsky and I doubt he’s anxious to explain away the twisted magic.
The film starts out not too diverged from reality, almost in a Pinter-esque place. Jennifer Lawrence plays an unnamed and demure housewife to Javier Bardem’s poet suffering from writer’s block. She tends to their mysteriously isolated house, while he paces and moans and never writes. One day, Ed Harris suddenly shows up at their door, claims to be a fan, and refuses to leave. Then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) appears. Then their kids show up. No one will leave. Someone gets murdered. Their blood splatter transforms into some sort of fleshy wound on the floor. Lawrence is at the center and in every frame. She’s rattled and disturbed, unsure just what the hell is happening. It’s at this point that the film starts to get dark and strange (moreso). Bardem finally writes, sycophants arrive, Lawrence gets pregnant (see title), and somehow it all devolves into riotous madness and bloodshed.
That all sounds insane because it is. Somehow, Aronofsky managed to convince Paramount to release a surrealist nightmare of a fantasy under the guise that it’s a horror film. To be fair, the film is damn creepy and expertly crafted for maximum visceral impact. However, the story isn’t set in anything resembling reality. Though the filmmaker blasts his themes loudly, there’s no easy or obvious interpretation to be found. A nightmarish exploration of motherhood and womanhood is certainly in there, as are plenty of Biblical references, as well as a grand condemnation of the artistic process and fame. Many ideas are percolating in the filmmaker’s head at once. If Aronofsky revealed the whole thing was based on a dream, that wouldn’t be too surprising. Nor would it be a shock to hear that he spent years teasing out all the ideas, or if he cranked it out in a single stream-of-consciousness writing session. There are many debates to be had about ‘mother!’ and no correct answers.
What isn’t up for debate is the film’s remarkable technical construction or performances. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s jittery handheld cameras swirl around the actors, providing uncomfortable close-ups and stirringly nasty compositions. Everyone commits fully to their insane roles, from Lawrence’s slow-burn destruction to Bardem’s unsettling narcissism, Harris and Pfeiffer’s unsettlingly friendly visitors, and a few unexpected players who fit into the twisted tale beautifully. (It’s also worth noting that everyone adds sly dark comedy to the proceedings, as if this thing weren’t already strange enough.) The house is a masterfully designed prison, home, and living place. All the elements build towards a horrifyingly intense climax filled with unforgettable graphic imagery, layered symbolism, and uncanny surrealism impossible to tear from your mind. The film grabs attention and burns a mark into brains. Whether or not that’s an enjoyable experience will come down entirely to the viewer.
‘mother!’ is destined and designed to be a polarizing cinematic experience. It’s harsh enough to put off many thoughtful viewers and vague enough to alienate the horror crowd (despite Paramount’s genre-oriented marketing campaign). Aronofsky strives to match the work of cinematic surrealist dream-weavers like Bunuel and Lynch, but his typical lack of subtlety leads to moments that seem too overtly manipulative and obvious despite the film offering no answers. The film is also just downright unpleasant to experience as it jags the nerves and prods the mind. However, within this grand and messy ride is a searingly intense film that’s impossible to shake regardless of whether or not it’s liked or understood.
Darren Aronofsky has delivered another potent cinematic vision in a career defined by them. The fact that he somehow got ‘mother!’ through the Hollywood machine is a miracle. Somehow this will play in malls and suburbs to terrified, scarred and confused masses munching on popcorn and wondering what the hell just happened to a few of their favorite movie stars. Even if the film is imperfect, ya gotta admire everyone involved for having the conviction to commit to the insanity and give it a mainstream release.