Movie Review: Aronofsky’s ‘Mother!’ is a career high that takes the lowest of roads
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Synopsis: A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.
Where to begin with a film like Mother!, indeed, even with a word so laden with subtext, an exclamation mark the punchline to a gag so blackly comic it straddles the realms of perception? Delirious, obscene, guttural, outrageous, preposterous: all words one can accurately level at proceedings, but Mother! really needs to consumed more than it does articulated. Darren Aronofsky has already played with the paranoid (Pi, Black Swan) and the biblical (The Fountain, Noah); his latest sees them converge on the bucolic ideal, on modest aspiration and domestic sanctuary.
The sense of unease is apparent from the outset, a scene in which the eponymous Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wanders between an octagonal maze of rooms and staircases in search of her husband, Him (Javier Bardem). As continues apace as the film deepens, the over-the-shoulder shot of Mother beckons us into her paranoia. The spontaneous arrivals of Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), while apparently benign, begin to threaten the fragile, half-baked tranquillity of their home, despite Bardem’s struggling poet embracing the new additions. The encroachment takes an increasingly malevolent and chaotic turn with the introduction of a violent sibling rivalry, a point at which a grounded home-invasion narrative tips into something distinctly more intangible. The spirit of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby takes over in the second act, though its referencing plays much more into the overall parable of this work than it does the more formal 1968 film. A crystallizing of evil into the joy of burgeoning new life, perhaps? A brief moment of hopeful contentment assumes so, but there are hounds at the gates.
What many take away from Mother! will largely depend on what they bring to it, though it’s hard to see much value in an exclusively literal interpretation. The breakdown of civilization, of the family unit, of Mother Earth; radical idolatry and messianic devotion are all touched on. I think. Certainly, the New Testament allegory is writ large, brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson channeling Cain and Abel every bit as much as Lawrence’s Mother battles for her vision of Eden. And it’s Lawrence who carries mother!. Imperceptible fractures become gaping cracks become vast chasms as her futile attempts at normalcy go begging. There’s a very conscious moment at which comprehension gives way to pure survival, a clever decision from Aronofsky to return our gaze to the intimate when it could so easily have become lost in the rubble, quite literally.
Matthew Libatique’s work behind the camera mustn’t go unnoticed. Working with Aronofsky on three of the director’s four projects named above (save Pi), his eye for balance between naturalism and fantasy is pivotal. The devolution of staid, almost button-up convention into, frankly, unfathomable territory isn’t seamless, nor should it be, but it’s commitment to Lawrence’s ability to tell a story, often through a mere glance or gesture, shows admirable restraint.
Mother! is already proving to be a divisive work, yet I challenge anyone to find fault with its ambition. The director himself has cited Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (the bourgeoisie a point of repeated social satirizing for Buñuel) as a touchstone, while the ferocity on screen recalls the David Lynch of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. And who else in mainstream cinema might be daring enough to warrant those comparisons? Not many, I would wager.
Overall Grade: A
Hear our podcast review on Episode 239: