(Foreword: I went in without watching any trailers or reading any press. My recommendation: let the film have its way with you first – because that’s what it will do – then read my reaction below. What I have written will undoubtedly color your experience, and I’m running this without so much as a picture for the film’s sake. Thank you.)
Forget what you know about cinema. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! throws it all out the window, being one of the boldest movies since Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. It is a moving, breathing, squirming, splattering painting which doesn’t care how you view what it has to offer. mother! doesn’t bother with the niceties, such as character names or backgrounds; it thrusts you straight into its gaping maw and devours you from its opening frame.
Did the preceding paragraph scare you a bit? Good. Consider your fright a pebble compared to the mountain of unease and discombobulation mother! packs in its symbolism, imagery, and bombastic sound design. All to give you a frenzied fever-dream of a movie you’ll be thinking about long after you leave the theater. It’s equal parts performance piece, nightmare, and Biblical adaptation featuring Aronofsky’s typical slow-roll-then-EXPLODE kind of plotting and pacing. Much like his films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the film starts off relatively innocuously, then veers horribly toward the unknown and the chaotic.
Aronofsky tackles and mixes the film’s themes – Biblical narratives (the book of Genesis and the Gospels figure heavily in the proceedings), misogyny, gender roles, organized religion, creation, the cycle of life – in a graphic and aggressive manner heretofore unseen. Buying a ticket to mother! is, in effect, signing a contract to allow you to be shackled and dragged into one of the most vividly realized ordeals anyone has ever committed to film.
As the titular Mother, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t just get put through the wringer; she is chewed up by it. Her credited name may allude to Mother Earth, Mother Mary, or simply a mother, but her role doesn’t change as one who gives until there’s nothing left. She’s the creator, the cook, the cleaner, the caretaker, the broodmare, and the sacrificial lamb. The beautiful home she has rebuilt from scratch is, throughout the movie, slowly defiled and destroyed by unwanted “guests” who think her palatial estate is a bed-and-breakfast. Her final words are left to resound in our psyches and leave us in shame.
Opposite Mother is Him (Javier Bardem). Just… Him. Man. Males. All take and no give. Only once is he seen creating anything not for his own personal gain and acclaim, and even then, it’s out of anger and spite. He seems to love Mother, but except for one instance, he’s only shown to give her an affection akin to how one treats a dog. When the guests come calling, he doesn’t ask her approval before letting them stay in the house, giving them free rein to do whatever they want.
I wrote in my Ingrid Goes West review, “This is one of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever had the displeasure to watch.” Looks like I spoke too soon, as mother! is discomfort on a level no one can touch. Not only is Aronofsky’s fractured dream-logic disorienting, it’s made all the more so by Matthew Libatique’s draining cinematography. The entire movie is either captured handheld-style over Lawrence’s shoulder, or we’re staring right into a closeup of her face which takes up more than a third of the 2.39:1 frame. (Maybe it’s to retain the idea of a human face being seen as Mother Earth.) And these aren’t static closeups, either, nor is it the “Snorricam,” where the camera is affixed to the subject; Libatique’s camera is detached and not moving in concert with Lawrence.
When we are blessed with locked-down or smooth shots, we’re not only thrown off by the sudden stop, we’re also thrown off by what’s in the shot. A slow zoom out of Mother’s placid house only reveals burning grasslands just out of reach. Another calm moment isn’t calm at all; the frame is overpowered with the presence of seething anger. There is no peace or comfort in any of mother!, with Aronofsky’s orchestrations bordering on the psychotic.
mother! is a film with characters, and yet none; there is only what each person represents. It’s a film with a plot, and yet none; there is only man, woman, what becomes of them, and what becomes as a result of them. All of this said, mother! is one of the most undeniably great American movies, a true art masterpiece. Unflinching and unyielding, it overflows with what art is supposed to do, which is to cause concern, consternation, feeling, self-examination, and boundless thought. Most importantly, it is supposed to challenge you, and mother! has challenges lasting for days. The last time I felt this way about a film was 23 years ago, staggering out of the aforementioned Natural Born Killers; I’m overjoyed to have found it again.
Special thanks to Tim Gordon.