What is mother!?
An unhappily married couple – simply called ‘Him’ and ‘mother’ – are visited by a stranger. Then his wife. Followed by his kids. And soon all manner of folk descend upon the country pile in which they live, disrupting their lives, putting them in harm’s way, and forcing the pair to question their relationship.
An Ambitious Assault on the Senses
Darren Aronofsky’s audacious new film is an assault on the senses, the writer-director battering the audience into submission in much the same way that he beats down his leading lady over the course of the two-hour run-time.
It’s a visually arresting piece that tackles big, grand themes concerning love, religion, war and politics in a genre setting. But at times the film feels as self-important as the poet at the heart of proceedings, and as the action becomes ever-more outlandish, so mother! is crushed under the weight of its own ambitions.
Javier Bardem plays the poet in question, simply called ‘Him’ in the film’s credits. Egotistical and self-obsessed, he had a hit early in his career, but has been struggling to follow it up, with Him suffering from crippling writer’s block, precipitated by the burning down of his beloved house.
Jennifer Lawrence plays ‘mother’ – wife to Him, who busies herself cooking, cleaning and restoring that country pile. Devoted and submissive in equal measure, her life revolves around Him, but try as she might to make the marriage work, their relationship is becoming ever-more one-sided.
Then, one night, there’s a knock at the door. A stranger – played by Ed Harris and claiming to work at the nearby hospital – mistakes the house for a bed-and-breakfast. Bardem invites him in, much to the dismay of Lawrence, and as friendship blossoms between the two men, so the visitor stays, installing himself as something of a permanent fixture.
Harris is soon followed by his wife – played with spiky intensity by Michelle Pfeiffer – and between barbed insults directed at Lawrence, she’s soon treating the house as if it’s her own. Then their sons – played by real-life siblings Brian and Domhnall Gleeson – join the fray, bringing violence as they squabble and wrestle their way from room-to-room.
And that’s just the beginning. House guest after house guest descends upon the couple, bringing with them madness, chaos and death. And while we won’t spoil how they come to be there – with much of the joy of mother! coming from watching the chaos unfold – the real question at the heart of the movie is why?
What’s mother! REALLY About?
That’s a question which audiences will be asking themselves long after the credits have rolled. On the surface it can be viewed as a film about a couple in crisis, the flights of fancy Lawrence experiences brought on by paranoia, insecurity, and quite possibly the yellow substance she regularly knocks back.
Then she gets pregnant and becomes a mother, and the visions and hallucinations could be read as being about fears concerning conception, child-birth and maternity.
But there’s much more going on, so much so that the film starts to confuse rather than entertain. Religion is key, with Aronofsky raining plagues upon his protagonist, and using the film to question both Christ and faith. Politics plays it part, with protests turning into the kind of riots we see on the nightly news, and the ‘War on Terror’ touched upon in somewhat clumsy fashion.
There’s also a more self-indulgent slant to the narrative. It examines the importance of art, as Aronofsky seems to be wrestling with the notion of the creator being more important than everyone else in their life, and questioning if Him’s poetry is more important than life itself.
Equally the subject of fame is prominent throughout, with Bardem’s character’s success triggering mass adoration, and casting a shadow over his wife. The couple quickly find themselves living in a bubble, and the fame monster eventually chews Lawrence up and spits her out.
In short, it seems like Darren Aronofsky has a lot on his mind, and is working through a whole bunch of personal issues onscreen. In somewhat messy fashion.
Jennifer Lawrence is on Fire
Bardem grins his way through proceedings, his charm and the twinkle in his eye encouraging you to forgive his many misdemeanours, much as Lawrence’s character does on multiple occasions. And Jennifer Lawrence is on fire as she becomes both his muse and victim, Bardem sucking the life out of her as he becomes increasingly inspired and successful.
The camera zooms in on Lawrence’s face early in proceedings, and stays there for the pretty much the duration of the movie, focusing on her every glance and smile. And all that attention pays off, with Lawrence selling mother’s panic and terror early on as well as a palpable sense of creeping madness as the film progresses.
Credit should also go to cinematographer Matthew Laboutique, who captures the claustrophobia of being trapped in that house, and finds beauty in the blood-stained horrors therein. He and Aronofsky also manage to place the audience firmly in the eye of the storm when said chaos starts to reign, which makes for an immersive moviegoing experience, if not an altogether pleasant one.
Is mother! Good?
Darren Aronofsky rarely plays by the rules, and mother! is a strange concoction that manages to straddle a whole host of genres. Some more successfully than others.
It’s certainly a novel twist on the haunted house movie, featuring a dark basement, a creepy furnace, blood seeping from the floorboards, and a ‘final girl’ unlike any ever committed to film. But it won’t give you the thrill-ride one expects from such a film.
It also frequently plays like a black comedy or old-fashioned farce. But don’t expect to laugh out loud, as while the situations are frequently funny, jokes are thin on the ground.
Instead mother! works best when delving into psychological territory, at times feeling like the paranoid step-child of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The atmosphere is unsettling from the off, and Aronofsky manages to maintain that discomfort for the duration, which is no mean feat.
Which makes it all the more annoying that the film’s intentions seem so confused. Because in trying to tackle so many serious subjects and grand themes, Aronofsky fails to fully nail any of them. Resulting in a film that looks great, but quickly loses focus, frequently frustrates, and ultimately feels empty and hollow.