Film Review: The Madness of Darren Aronofsky returns with "Mother!"
Mother!, with its meandering pace married with pulse-pounding white-knuckled radioactive fear and fury, is unlike any film I've ever seen in the last few years. In its polarising effect, it could be compared to last year's The Neon Demon. I wanted to throw something at the screen during its biblically cruel final minutes and then applaud its audacity and originality.
Mother! begins tolerably if uncomfortably, like an itchy scar. The experience of Mother! is the scar widening and deepening with each act of cruelty and bizarre inhumanity until it's overflowing with ooze. If you think that's unbearably pretentious, wait until you get a load of this vomit.
I don't mean 'vomit' as a cutesy synonym for badness. I don't even mean it as a negative, necessarily. It just simply is; it is vomit. Though there are a myriad of lenses with which to examine this strange film – as a religious text, a feminist text, a dissertation on creation and destruction – it's abundantly clear that writer/director Darren Aronofsky was making this at a time of some intense self-loathing and that this thing, this Mother!, served as an exorcism of sorts. He artfully contained this expulsion of psychic toxicity with a cast of some of the finest actors, beautiful and intricate set-design and cinematography, and foisted the resulting whatever-this-is upon an unsuspecting world. We can either follow the initial instinct to curse and run away from it, or we can perform an autopsy and speculate. But unlike, Black Swan or The Wrestler, it's, by its deliberately unpleasant design, impossible to love.
Aronofsky's notable previous features, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan, dealt with similarly dark body-horror themes and narratives centred around damaged weirdos tragically paving the imagined road to salvation with their blood and angst. But Mother! is this man's nightmare, specifically the fear of the poisonous negative space of a self-involved artist; the dance of creation and destruction. And whether you dig Aronofsky's penchant for misanthropy or not, you will be dragged kicking and screaming into his ugly neuroses. Five people left before it was over, and I was tempted to join them. When the credits roll, there's no indication that the emotional terror wreaked was for a purpose; at least if you're viewing it as a traditional narrative that demands catharsis and a cause-and-effect through-line you can trace from beginning to end. That, I think more than the depraved scenes, is what'll anger and unsettle large swaths of the audience. It's kind of incredible.
I'm still struggling with this thing myself, though for different reasons. I don't whether it's awful because it's yet another pompous piece of fiction about the Tortured Male Genius putting his lover through hell in the name of his 'creativity' and I don't know whether it's brilliant because it also has the good sense to deeply hate the Tortured Male Genius and recognise it for the vampiric force it is. One needs only to remember Marlon Brando and his Last Tango in Paris film to know that this vampiric force is an actively harmful thing that makes the world just a little shittier. But it's admirable and interesting that Aronofsky is devoting so much of his artistic prowess here to painting himself as the most amazing asshole of his own life.
She (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live a tranquil life in a remote area. He is a once-great poet struggling to write new material, and she is his devoted, much younger lover building them a beautiful home. She's connected to their hiply rustic house in that magical realism fashion you might find in your average Haruki Murakami book, and he lost everything in a fire once upon a time. That's important to remember. Their life is upended when two uninvited guests arrive in the form of an obnoxious older married couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer).
To go into any more plot details would be to spoil things. Suffice it to say that that relatable annoyance of two scumbags disregarding you and your home builds and builds to a climax so apocalyptic and dreadful and unhinged that you can only stagger away with the conclusion that of course, it all had to be a metaphor for something; or somethings. The hard left turn from kooky but grounded to pure allegory is as swift and hard a kick in the nuts as you're likely to get from a film this year. It's deliriously funny, but only upon reflection.
Yet, it must be noted, this film is precise in how it anchors us to its particular madness. Not for more than a few seconds in all of its two hours are we unmoored from Jennifer Lawrence's perspective. In fact, I can't recall more than three wide-shots in the entirety of the film; we're utterly trapped right along with her, in all of her annoyance, befuddlement and anger. Like her, we don't know if she's insane or if it's everybody else who's lost their minds. Maybe the pace is sluggish and the conflicts circular, but its perspective is laser-focused.
Lawrence, who's been disinteresting and disinterested of late, gives everything she has and it's impossible to look away from. Bardem as her lover, the monstrously self-involved artist, is great too. Everybody involved flawlessly serves Aronofsky's vision. They're not memorable characters or sympathetic or anything like that. Nobody has a name in Mother!; they are broadly sketched archetypes and ideas. If that's not your bag and you don't care for it to be your bag, this will surely do nothing for you except irritate and disgust.
Whatever the consensus will be by the time folks have had time to digest Mother!, there's little doubt that it'll be this year's most talked about, and maybe most despised, film. Aronofsky once again skilfully weaves the personal, the sacred, and the schlocky profane, to construct a piece of art that's more rewarding to mull over than to sit - or rather, suffer - through. I doubt I'll ever watch it again, but I'm glad I did. On a related note, somebody should check to see if Darren Aronofsky is feeling better now.