James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Seeing a Darren Aronofsky film typically comes with residual effects. Even his lighter more “arthouse” fare, such as BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER, can be anxiety inducing. But his latest, and quite possibly his boldest artistic expression, MOTHER! not just leaves ripples; its images are imprinted in your mind. This isn’t surprising since the filmmaker doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body; his films just don’t operate that way. Filmgoers deserve something this unhinged. Like many films that refuse to hold its audience’s hand, MOTHER! is a big, bloody risk.
The film opens with a woman only known as “Mother” (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who rises from a sleep with an inquisitive look as she’s missing her partner. Her lover is a poet billed as “Him.” (Javier Bardem) He uses the woman as his muse in their idyllic and desolate farmhouse. Lawrence and Bardem are clearly mismatched as a couple, but that’s the point. Their relationship is about as one-sided as it gets. Aronofsky is brash enough to mention she looks like his daughter and they never make love anymore. But our filmmaker’s interest lie elsewhere. He has more on his mind than onscreen chemistry.
Things are relatively chill until a drifter who presents himself as a professor (Ed Harris) and his breezy wife (a pesky Michelle Pfieffer) shows up on the scene. Limitless amounts of anxiety are soon to follow. Whether it’s Lawrence’s character picking up dishes after her guests or them being in unwanted rooms, it’s a maddening mess for any reasonable person to comprehend.
Tightly shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (also of BLACK SWAN), the camera creates Lawrence’s forced perspective. For the entire two hours we never leave her side. If she swivels right, so does the camera. This creates a psychotic point-of-view as the camera follows her around the house. We go up the stairs, down to the furnace, to the kitchen, and onto the secluded study of her husband. The images captured by Libatique are an engaging piece of work that mirrors some of the astounding, and arguably more palpable, images of BLACK SWAN.
With MOTHER!, the metaphors become literal. Bardem’s character is the creator and his wife nurtures the house, pouring every ounce of love she has into reconstructing his childhood home that once was lost to flames. But Aronofsky asks how much are we willing to give someone we love? It’s nearly a guarantee that audience members aren’t going to be willing to give much, despite the excellent performance by Lawrence. As far this film is concerned, the “creator” is Aronofsky, and his arrogant brilliance won’t ever let you forget this notion.
Aronofsky has played with these themes many, many times in his films. With THE FOUNTAIN, he focused on the passing of time; in BLACK SWAN, it was the quest for perfection; in NOAH, it dealt with, well, creation. The idea that GOD is a lover who takes and takes and takes is certainly within his wheelhouse. But if it wasn’t for the duality of Lawrence’s performance, this idea would have been well-nigh gone.
Despite this being off the reservation for Lawrence, she captures an innocent and precious look filled to the brim with love for her home, her husband and the small things in life, such as texturizing a mere wall. The film isn’t set in any sort of reality. But when the terror hits the front-door step, Lawrence, for all her star power, is incredibly believable. It’s something of magic, really.
MOTHER! is the equivalent of Aronofsky yelling in your face for its entire duration about love, religion, creation and death. This is a completely twisted horror show that will have many people feeling angered, and frankly, very sad. While Aronofsky will be accused of taking it “too far,” and he does (one scene in particular), MOTHER! exemplifies a filmmaker acting on pure ID. And for what its worth, it is simultaneously frustrating and satisfying. Take it for what you will.
mother! opens nationwide on Friday, Sept. 14