Mother! | Episode 70.25

Posted September 15, 2017

-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

To watch Mother! is to wonder what’s going on, and whether Darren Aronofsky will be merciful enough to actually tell us. The writer-director, whose narratives are so rife with ambiguity, while his touch and tonality are anything but, opens his new thriller just inches from an immolating woman’s visage. Her face is actively burning, and the flesh around her eyes singes and peels away. Cut to Javier Bardem groping a weird, asymmetrical jewel, and we see a dilapidated country house in turn become gradually new again. A CGI sunbeam creeps across a living room, renovating and cleaning as it goes. 

So when Jennifer Lawrence wakes up and there’s a sense of unease in her marriage — firstly because her husband (Bardem) is not in bed next to her, and second, third, and fourthly because his affection is distracted and rote in the way only a Hollywood-writer-man-with-a-secret’s can be — we already know there’s something up. Then, Ed Harris comes to their door. The couple lives in the center of a remote, unkempt field from what we can tell, and the unlikely visitor is disturbing in that winsome way Ed Harris so often is. Bardem offers him a room for the night, no questions asked. The next day, Michelle Pfeiffer, the wife of the strange visitor who did not say he had a wife, darkens their door as well. (Pfeiffer will at least get to have some fun.)

If this plot recitation sounds like shtick, I’ll cop to that, but Aronofsky has given us a movie driven by often bewildering addition. And then this happens. And then this. And then Jennifer Lawrence has an attack of nausea and drinks a mysterious tonic. And then everyone is suddenly interested in that jewel Bardem was squeezing earlier. And then the house’s ancient furnace leaps to life with no provocation. 

There are no names. There are no pauses for in-scene characterization. We’re not meant to know any of these people on the level of personality or development. We are meant to feel through Lawrence's character and wonder in sustained panic about the intentions of her husband and the squatters. She’s having a sort of hostess’ nightmare when all she really wants is to keep fixing up the house and catch more than a stolen glance from her spouse. 

It’s all very Stephen King, but even more, it’s very Poe. The house is a living, but doomed, organism of some kind, reminiscent of one a family called Usher inhabited. It responds to the various touches and whims of Lawrence and Bardem like a mood ring, but it suffers wounds as well. Its nooks, crannies and bric-a-brac are all symbolic. Lawrence dresses in white. Harris drinks from a special flask of his own brewing. There’s some kind of hidden wine cellar that could easily be stocked with Amontillado. 

It’s almost honorable how traditional of a horror story Mother! appears at its outset, right down to the camera as unreliable narrator. Its unforgiving closeness to Lawrence and her views of the people in her life creates uncertainty above all else. Is any of this real? Who’s pulling the strings? The fact that Bardem is an older writer secluded with his young, too-dutiful wife is conspicuous enough. Lawrence just craves a chance to connect and to understand. Dear god, who art in the upstairs study, will the audience feel her pain. 

Lawrence acts gamely as she’s put through a housewife’s version of The Revenant. Her performance could be note-perfect — it’s certainly strenuous — but we never really know in what key the rest of the orchestra is playing. In this house, she’s both martyr and goddess. And while those roles lend themselves to plenty of operatic acting moments, it’s hard to recognize the character as anything more than a vessel for either tension or symbolism. And, sure, she’s a terrific vessel. We feel her terror, rage and confusion as her home becomes a revolving-door menagerie that stimulates the husband and only torments her. But there are barriers to a movie that spends so much time trying to make your skin crawl and then suddenly insists you look at the whole ordeal as a metaphor. The place where the gut and the brain connect starves throughout. In other words, it's hard for me to imagine the person who walks out of Mother! excited by it, or who would respond with anything resembling fandom. The point at which the movie turns into pure allegory for faith, creation and organized religion is Aronofsky exploring some of his favorite themes — particularly those from Noah — on his own wild (but contained) canvas. His devotion to the figurative, though, has out-kicked the literal’s coverage. The first half of the movie, seen through lens of the second half, doesn’t cohere. 

Mother! becomes mostly worthwhile after it’s over, as a thought experiment. With full Aronofsky intention, it’s largely unpleasant to watch. The director is still making challenging, provoking art frame by fame, but his adversarial relationship with what an audience wants, and maybe needs, may have reached a tipping point. There’s a reason our podcast calls out Requiem For A Dream as the epitome of good-bad films. Mother! is closer to bad-bad, somehow predictable and inscrutable at the same time, like The Hours meets Melancholia, but with cruel intentions closer to Nocturnal Animals. Aronofsky seeks to put Lawrence's protagonist through the wringer while never actually giving her the reigns of the movie. And that's almost unforgivable. He understands and fully renders a kind of hysteria and torment brought on by male power and insensitivity without actually, ultimately siding with the victim.

Granted, the end game is the whole game for Aronofsky. The auteur has made a career out of nudging characters toward self-destruction until they actually start to believe their fortunes lie in death. That fatalism works best when a character’s deep, realistic desires line up with dark destiny. Stunningly and evenly executed in Black Swan and The Wrestler, the characters have fates, but they’re also at war with their own standards and the standards of their strange subcultures. Even in lesser films, most Aronofsky protagonists get to belt out their climactic and pyrrhic show-stopper. Mother! fits in perfectly, with the caveat that Lawrence's character may not have that key ingredient of free will. Magnetism to destruction is tragic poetry; slavery is just tragic. 


All The Movies We've Reviewed

101 Dalmatians
10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Things I Hate About You
127 Hours
22 Jump Street
47 Meters Down
Across The Universe
A Dangerous Method
A Few Good Men
Air Force One
A League of Their Own
Alien 3
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Resurrection
American Animals
American Hustle
American Made
American Psycho
American Splendor
A Simple Plan
A Single Man
A Star Is Born
Atomic Blonde
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Baby Driver
Baby Mama
Bad Company
Bad Lieutenant
Bad Moms
Bad Santa
Basic Instinct
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Beasts of No Nation
Beauty And The Beast
Before Sunrise
Behind Enemy Lines
Black Hawk Down
Black Mass
Black Panther
Blade Runner 2049
Bleed For This
Body Heat
Boogie Nights
Bridge of Spies
Bull Durham
Call Me By Your Name
Captain Fantastic
Catch Me If You Can
Chariots Of Fire
Chasing Amy
Child's Play
Christmas Vacation
Cinderella Man
Con Air
Cool Runnings
Crazy Rich Asians
Crimson Tide
Danny Collins
Dante's Peak
Dead Poets Society
Deep Blue Sea
Deep Impact
Deja Vu
Demolition Man
Dirty Dancing
Donnie Brasco
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
Dude, Where's My Car?
Easy A
Eddie The Eagle
Ed Wood
Employee of the Month
Erin Brockovich
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Event Horizon
Everybody Wants Some!!
Executive Decision
Ex Machina
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Fatal Attraction
Field Of Dreams
Finding Forrester
For Love Of The Game
Friday Night Lights
Game Night
Gangs of New York
Garden State
Gone Girl
Gone In Sixty Seconds
Grosse Pointe Blank
Hail, Caesar!
Half Baked
Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Head of State
He Got Game
Hocus Pocus
Hollywood Ending
Hot Tub Time Machine
How High
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Ingrid Goes West
Inherent Vice
Inside Man
Inside Out
In The Land Of Women
In The Line of Fire
Into The Wild
I, Tonya
Jaws: The Revenge
John Wick
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
King Cobra
Kingdom Of Heaven
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lady Bird
La La Land
Leave No Trace
Less Than Zero
Lethal Weapon
Little Miss Sunshine
Love & Mercy
Love, Simon
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mamma Mia
Matchstick Men
Midnight Special
Million Dollar Arm
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mississippi Grind
Mo' Better Blues
Mom and Dad
Money For Nothing
Moonrise Kingdom
Mr. Mom
Murder at 1600
My Cousin Vinny
National Lampoon's Vacation
Never Say Never
Ocean's Twelve
Old School
One Hour Photo
Open Water
Orange County
Out of Africa
Part of Me
Peter's Friends
Phantom Thread
Picture Perfect
Practical Magic
Public Enemies
Purple Rain
Raising Arizona
Red Dragon
Red Eye
Red Sparrow
Remember The Titans
Reversal Of Fortune
Rock Of Ages
Run All Night
Save The Last Dance
School Ties
Scream 2
Simply Complicated
Sleepaway Camp
Small Soldiers
Snakes On A Plane
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Southside With You
Space Jam
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
State and Main
Step Up
Steve Jobs
Sweet Home Alabama
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Addams Family
The Big Chill
The Big Sick
The Bling Ring
The Brady Bunch Movie
The Campaign
The Cell
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Color of Money
The Disaster Artist
The End of the Tour
The Family Man
The Fast and The Furious
The Fighter
The Flintstones
The Fly
The Fog
The Fugitive
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Hateful Eight
The Hate U Give
The Holiday
The Hours
The Hunt For Red October
The Illusionist
The Indian In The Cupboard
The Insider
The Judge
The Jungle Book
The Last of the Mohicans
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Martian
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
The Meg
The Mexican
The Mighty Ducks
The Mission
The Mosquito Coast
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Natural
The Negotiator
The Nice Guys
The Night Before
The Pagemaster
The Perfect Storm
The Poseidon Adventure
The Prestige
The Queen
The Recruit
The Revenant
The River Wild
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Rules of Attraction
The Shadow
The Shallows
The Sixth Sense
The Social Network
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
The Thing
The Truman Show
The Watch
The Witches of Eastwick
This Is Where I Leave You
¬°Three Amigos!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Tropic Thunder
Van Wilder
Varsity Blues
V For Vendetta
Welcome To Me
While You Were Sleeping
White House Down
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Wild Things
Wild Wild West
Win It All
Without A Paddle
Wyatt Earp
Young Adult
Zack and Miri Make a Porno