Auteur filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has been making psychological dramas with all the trappings and tools of a horror movie his entire career. From the claustrophobia of Pi to the monstrous refrigerator of Requiem for a Dream to the body horror of Black Swan to the homicidal hero of Noah, he’s been circling the genre like a hawk. You can argue that with Mother! Aronofsky finally dives in with both feet to make a full bodied psychological horror film. That’s debatable though, because it is so outside the box of your average movie, horror or otherwise. In fact, everything about Mother! is debatable. Which is one of the reasons I completely ate up Aronofsky’s latest piece of over-the-top provocative cinema. With Mother! he’s basically lit a bushel of dynamite and rolled it into the theaters, daring to shell-shock a public fat and happy on a steady diet of superhero movies and remakes.
While watching the film quotes about the fundamental purpose of movies ran through my head. Roger Ebert’s a movie is not about what it’s about, but how it’s about. Carol Clover’s analysis of the Final Girl where women are uniquely qualified to survive horror films because they’re used to facing real world horror. Wes Craven who said that a great horror movie is one where you question the filmmaker’s sanity and fear how far they will go. All of these apply to Mother! which is both unlike anything out there right now, but also part of a small group of mold-breaking films, by angry iconoclastic filmmakers, who craft something entirely detached from real-world logic and make a movie that is pure parable. Aronofsky’s film is daringly surreal, reminiscent of the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Brunel, and Lars Von Trier, just to name a few. Movies that break down the very beams of what a movie is, how realistic it has to be, what it means to be entertained, what it is to make art and express the human condition. This kind of surrealism dates back to the foundation of narrative cinema and Mother! is a true product of this medium – it could be nothing but a movie.
Jennifer Lawrence plays the title character as a timid woman who takes pride in her creative work building and designing the couple’s house. Javier Bardem is her husband, a frustrated poet deadlocked in writer’s block, who delights in the company of a new town doctor (Ed Harris) seeking a room for the night. The two guys hit it off, but Lawrence doesn’t so much with the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeifer) and soon she is caught as a bystander to a drama that unfolds around her and tries to just survive as it spirals out of control. What begins as a seemingly tangible story soon slides into full-blown perfectly crafted dream logic full of time skips and paranoia. Lawrence is shot in jarringly extreme close-ups and we follow her around for the whole film, sharing her bewilderment as everyone around her seems to know things she doesn’t, as time seems to skip normalcy to keep her – and us – constantly in the dark. Her protestations regularly dismissed by her husband or marginalized by those who have decided to take over her house.
Aronofsky unfolds the film like a dream and structures it like a rollercoaster that tick, tick, ticks up and then drops us into a freefall. And the final drop, is a doozy. The first act starts slow, even baiting us with a few classic genre “jump scares” like the old behind-the-freezer-door bit before Aronofsky pulls the rug out from under everything. The final act of Mother! is masterful filmmaking on a technical and visceral level. A chaotic, inventive, visually eye-popping and genuinely horrifying tour de force you experience rather than watch. While we were focused on trying to follow the literal story, Aronofsky was busy behind the scenes unscrewing all the safety restraints.
What we end up with is an exhausting and challenging parable with religious, environmental and political undertones. About mankind, womankind and paradise lost. Everyone in the film is uniformly terrific, but they aren’t playing arcs, but rather archetypes. Lawrence as the blank slate who gains the strength to push back. Bardem as the man so concerned with pleasantries he must be hiding something. Even Pfeiffer as the woman who likes to probe and push Lawrence’s buttons regarding her desire to get pregnant. That Mother! didn’t turn into another Rosemary’s Baby pregnancy paranoia film is also refreshing.
Aronofsky continues to scratch a fascination with Christianity here, along with a blistering satire that he breaks down and reconstructs like a nightmare. The story actively engages with us to decode what it presents as it unfolds, but it can feel heavy-handed and obvious as well. You can certainly argue that Aronofsky is pretentious, keeps us at a distance from the characters or is not as profound as he thinks he is. All that is true, but I still love that he makes whatever he wants and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. A rare commodity nowadays. I’m shocked it got the wide release it did. Dare I even say, it’s not a movie’s job to get you to like it (or its characters.) It might end up being the most walked-out-of movie of the year, which Aronofsky would probably consider a badge of honor, but also, I’m here to say it is a ballsy, expertly put-together piece of work. From pillar to post, Aronofsky knows how to make a movie. Especially an absurdist one. Mother! latched onto my brain for days like a Futurama brain slug and gave me an immediate desire to see it again. The year in cinema is all the better for it.