Movie Review: Mother!
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem
The way mother! has been received by the moviegoing public does not remotely surprise me. Very little of that has to do with the manufactured outrage from certain disreputable outrage machines. Most of it comes from the indisputable fact that expecting a normal movie from the guy who made Pi is a bad idea, and Paramount’s marketing sure didn’t help there. Sure, the movie’s content was bound to upset those looking for a fight about anything even slightly critical of religion, but this is not a movie that was ever going to hit it big with many people. It’s self-consciously artsy and obscure and its narrative is one of the most baffling in recent memory. mother! is the Marmite of 2017 film, loved or loathed with little in-between, because it’s so different from most of what’s out right now. It's because of all of that that I was surprised I not only liked it, but liked it a lot. At the same time, I completely understand why many other people hate it. It is a confounding movie in so many ways, and I enjoy it while basically feeling as if I don't know who to recommend it to.
First, a quiz: Do you want to see a good old-fashioned throwback horror film, or do you want to spend two hours frantically mapping characters in your head and analyzing every interaction to figure out what’s supposed to be going on? If you said the first answer, you almost certainly will want to go see It instead. This is not a movie to half-watch, unless you really enjoy being confused (in that case, please watch it that way). That’s not to say it won’t be tempting to doze off, considering this particular movie has the pacing of a glacier made of snails, but patience and attention is pretty much a requirement to get anything out of this beyond incredulous chuckles. Taken at face value, it’s just a parade of barely logical and later flat-out absurd events tormenting a confused woman and her worryingly welcoming husband. Taken at anything other than face value and it’s a million other things.
Another tip: If you’re the type of person who loathes symbolism, who responds to test questions about an author’s choice to make blue curtains blue by saying “he just meant the curtains were blue,” stay far away from this movie. There are more symbolic elements here than there are actual symbols. This was made for those college classes all about analyzing meaning in a given piece of media, and the only thing stopping my analytical self from buckling down and writing out a thesis on it (aside from that taking forever) is that there are so many interpretations that the film supports. The biblical allegories are the most widely discussed, and definitely the most contested, of course, and some of those are so blunt as to smack you upside the head and irritate you if you have a particularly religious background (oh, two brothers, son of the first man and woman seen in the film, fighting with each other? Wonder what that means…). But if the biblical symbolism isn’t your particular cup o’ tea, you could easily take this movie as an allegory for the way certain sects of our society treat and neglect women. If that doesn’t work, mother! might be a metaphor for mother nature’s war with humanity and overpopulation. If you’re of a particular strain, you might see it as a criticism of the male artistic ego and how male writers of literary fiction take women as their “muse,” whether or not the woman involved is willing. Or maybe just power dynamics in relationships? Essentially, this movie is so abstract in its symbolism that an argument could be made about it being about damn near anything, which is why I’m looking forward to how opinion on it changes over time. I have a feeling particularly geeky film students will have a ball with it, if my reaction to the richness of the symbolism is any indication.
Jennifer Lawrence is the main draw of the movie for most people, and she does the role plenty of justice, but it’s almost entirely a reactive role. Fortunately, she’s pretty good at reacting, and Aronofsky wisely keeps the camera on her for almost the entire movie. Every ounce of her confusion, her anger, her sadness, can be felt. It’s far from her finest performance (see Winter’s Bone for that one), but she was definitely the right pick for the role. The real draw, though, is Javier Bardem, playing this enigmatic man whose moods are fickle, whose kindness is a door to chaos, and who claims to love his wife but never really acts like he does. He’s compelling enough to make you forget that there isn’t much consistency or humanity to the character, and becomes this towering, menacing buffoon by the end (which, of course, Means Something). Of all the people who show up in the weird little house in the movie, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the most present and the most compelling; the former is a strange mixture of scary and sympathetic, the latter beautifully obnoxious and a fountain of symbolism in her own right for the way she treats Lawrence.
If you still don’t have a concrete idea of what the actual movie is about, beyond a lot of highly symbolic events, based on this review, there’s a reason for that. mother!’s biggest failing, and why it won’t have appeal to others besides symbolism junkies, is that the story taken at face value is more or less a failure. Darren Aronofsky can talk all he wants in interviews about absurdist comedies and cite Bunuel all he likes, but by the third act the movie throws out the pretenses of a proper story (which even absurdist comedies tend to have) and decides to fling symbols and genuinely gruesome imagery at the screen. By this point the religious imagery is all but unavoidable and definitely not comforting. In this sense it most recalls the controversial, hallucinatory films of the late Ken Russell, another filmmaker who depicted religion in ways little-loved by the religious (though this film is quite a bit more vague about that). But it doesn’t have same sort of dramatic payoff most surrealist films have, and mostly only comes together once you try to figure out what it’s all talking about. This is a little disappointing; even most David Lynch movies work on a basic storytelling level.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that I want to hold mother!’s weakness in the narrative department against it too much. It works so well as an allegory that I can’t honestly say Aronofsky failed at what he set out to do, even if what he set out to do was alienate a good 80% of moviegoers. (Yeah, he definitely succeeded there…) I have a feeling that in a decade, away from its opaque marketing and the fans who went because its star was Hollywood royalty, mother! will be seen more for what it is rather than what made it fail at the box office. Of course, whatever it is is highly dependent on the viewer. In any case, I thought it was one of the more fascinating films in recent memory, the sort of movie I can’t believe actually got made and released by a big-name studio. That in itself is worthy of praise.
Score: ***½ out of 5 stars.