I am going to be discussing a few spoilers in this review. Darren Aronofsky is the type of director who makes ambitious fare that is routinely beyond description. I could try to discuss this film without discussing the big ideas it presents in it, and what his images mean, but that feels next to impossible. I tried writing this review without discussing the spoilers. But I can’t get passed some of the big reveals here.
Darren Aronofsky is the kind of guy whose films are anything but cookie-cutter. It seems every time he sits down in the director’s chair, it’s a new challenge to himself. “mother!” doesn’t feel like a typical studio release, because how could it. Aronofsky is the type of director who plans to make something unforgettable and wildly ambitious each time out. But sometimes, that ambition feels like self-indulgence. I sometimes find myself placing Aronofsky in the same category of directors as David Lynch and Nicolas Windig Refn. I feel when Aronofsky sets out to make a movie, what he wants is what matters and how the images he creates affects his audience seems secondary in the process. An interesting artistic choice, but something makes for a difficult review write-up.
Not to mention that I hate saying in a review that a movie is “not for everyone.” But with Aronofsky, it’s hard to avoid. This is the guy that made “Pi: Faith in Chaos,” “Requiem for A Dream,” “Noah,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan.” None of those movies are for everyone. I remember in high school, I was the alpha movie nerd. I always pushed my friends to watch what I felt was the cooler, less known stuff. I made a huge mistake one holiday weekend when we were going through my movies, and I decided to show them “Requiem for A Dream.” Yeah…it was partly my fault, because I totally didn’t prepare them for the sensory assault that was about to take place. What they thought would be a trippy drug movie and crime drama turned into what felt like a torture session, and still to this day I feel awful about it.
Despite this, I am a huge fan of Aronofsky’s work. I always have, I don’t think we have enough ambitious voices out in Hollywood, especially voices who get to release challenging, adult films with ease. I have loved just about every movie I listed above. So yes, I was excited to see “mother!” Especially since it seemingly went back to his horror roots, and it looked like a crazy haunted house movie. It also starred Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and Domhall Gleeson. I was pumped and primed for this.
So, a little shocked to say that I made it to the other end of the movie, and I didn’t love it.
Make no mistake folks, “mother!” will be unlike anything you see in a theater the rest of this year. It features all the wild ambition we have come to expect from gold old Darren. I don’t think I can agree with half the critics out there who gave this film such a negative review. It’s not one of the worst movies of the year. It’s filled with overly impressive technical skill. The entire cast threw themselves at their roles, and the result is a movie filled with engaging, provocative acting work. There are some moments of genuine shock, moments that feel offbeat, moments there were designed specifically to disturb. But “mother!” is more interested in mood and atmosphere. I don’t think you can really call “mother!” a horror film. In fact, when the movie goes for the jump scare, it falls flat. I think it’s very misleading to go into this expecting a horror film.
What’s frustrating is that I don’t know what to really call this. I am flabbergasted to admit that I sat through a beautiful looking movie with lots on its mind, packed with great performances and technique and I feel absolutely nothing from it. I can’t stand that Aronofsky filled his film with metaphor and meaning, yet I still haven’t a clue what he’s really trying to say. The film begins with a woman in fire, then we see Javier Bardem, who is just called Him, places an egg in a holder. Suddenly the fire ruined house he is in repairs itself, and we find Mother (Lawrence) waking up, calling out to her husband. Turns out her husband is a writer, who is suffering from some bad writer’s block. The couple retreated to a remote home in the wilderness, to see if he can find some inspiration to write. One night, a mysterious Man played by Ed Harris (no character really has a name in this) appears and Him invites him to stay over. That leads to Man’s wife (Pfeiffer) coming over later, and more and more of Him’s readers. All to the displeasure Mother. All the while Mother is having strange hallucinations, and she can’t figure out why her husband doesn’t listen to her or think it’s weird that strange people want to be in their house.
That’s a pretty general overview. But the film gets crazy and dark near the end. There is a severe beating of a woman that is pretty horrific, with the abusers calling her a “bitch” and a “cunt.” Eventually, the house gets set on fire, we see it was Lawrence who was the girl in the fire, Bardem pulls her heart out of her smoldering corpse, which turns into an egg. Then the first scene from the movie is the same scene as the end of the movie, right down to the dialogue.
There are a couple of ways that we as an audience could read this movie. I think the theory I like the most is the much-discussed religious allegory. Him represents the writers of the Bible, and Mother represents how women are treated in much of the Bible. Or maybe Him represents Adam and Mother represents Eve. I don’t know how many of you are religious people, but have you ever noticed how terrible women are treated in many chunks of the Bible. Do you think it’s weird that woman play such a huge role in the creation of life, but that’s barely represented in the Bible? Perhaps. Or maybe Lawrence is Mother Nature, Bardem is God, Harris is Adam and Pfeiffer is Eve?
Another way you could read this is as a metaphor for the creative process. Aronofsky seems to be saying that an artist must give himself up to his art, or it will never be great art. That means shutting literally everything else out. If this is true, then I don’t really know what to make of Aronofsky as a person, because I feel there are plenty of artists churning out great art who still have time to be family people and they pursue other interests. I think this says a lot about Aronofsky is as a person, and it says a lot about his personal life. I used to dream of growing up to make movies, but if I had to put myself in a box just to be great, I am not sure I would have wanted that.
“mother!” pulls its audience in many different directions and it kills me that there is so much here that doesn’t add up. There are actors here playing characters that I can’t relate to. I don’t know what Aronofsky is trying to say, and I don’t think I understand the meaning of putting your characters through such a horrifying ringer if the journey doesn’t mean anything. I know there are movies where if you watch them enough times, you get a story, normal more mystery movies out there. I remember writing a pretty negative review for Nicolas Windig Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” because I thought it was all subtext with no context, but when I revisited it again later, I got what Refn was trying to say, I finally saw the context and I can honestly say I like that movie better now. Perhaps if I rewatch “mother!” later I will understand more what Aronofsky is trying to say. But I think it’s frustrating and confusing as a film viewer to be given a handful of different metaphors or plots for a movie, and basically being told to pick one. I don’t mind having to decide for myself what happens at the end of a movie, just if there is a solid story that got me there. I understand mysteries contain clues sometimes, that you may miss in one viewing. But to be pulled in a thousand different directions with no meaning is tedious.
Like I said above, Lawrence is really great here. She had to be, because this would not have worked if Lawrence wasn’t up for this role, it’s easily the most difficult material she’s tackled, but she pushes herself as a performer here, and it shows. No doubt the performance you walk away discussing the most is Michelle Pfeiffer’s work. She is instantly iconic, and downright creepy here.
So, I can’t honestly say I love Aronofsky’s “mother!” but I do admire it. I admire the skill and acting in it, and I always value ambition. But I don’t know if Aronofsky had a complete story to tell, just a bunch of great ideas for a movie that got shoved in a blender. Audiences also need to be advised that this movie travels some dark, dark avenues. While I personally thought “Black Swan” and “Requiem for A Dream” were heftier, darker, and more disturbing, that doesn’t make the imagery here any less upsetting. Maybe I’ll see this again sometime, and maybe I’ll love it. But for right now, a list of ideas aren’t enough for me to give myself over to a film.
FINAL GRADE: B-