Review: mother! (2017)

If you were to access the subconscious of Darren Aronofsky and visualize his emotional and creative impulses, it’s likely you’d witness something very much like his film mother!. This psychological horror/drama film has enraged audiences and invigorated critics even as it divides them. This polarization is likely a result of how the film channels and merges all of Aronofsky’s central preoccupations, serving as a relentless artistic engine exploring obsession, relationships, the environment, and the Bible in the sort of uncensored, unrestrained manner Aronofsky is known for. All films bear the authorial stamp of their creators in some manner, but mother! is so personal and particular to Aronofsky as to be almost indecent. This makes it almost dangerous and a film of undeniable power.

mother! is an allegory, but about what is up for you to decide. The plot involves mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in a house in the woods with her husband, Him (Javier Bardem), who is a famous writer suffering from writer’s block. A strange man (Ed Harris) arrives at the house and Him invites the man to stay the night, despite mother’s trepidations about inviting a stranger into their private paradise. Soon enough, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, and then their sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), and before mother can take control of the situation, more strangers begin arriving and chaos begins to engulf the home.

Saying more or less about the film’s events is not necessary, as the plot of mother! is almost beside the point, as the film does not operate on a literal level as a narrative about real people. It is an allegory, with each narrative component representing a tangible idea or myth that feeds back into Aronofsky’s neuroses. The film can function as biblical allegory, but it also works as a pointed (and self-critical) exploration of being married to (and stifled by) a brilliant artist. It comments on environmentalism and celebrity and the nature of creation and humanity’s predilection to destroy everything it touches.

It is all of these things simultaneously and the true brilliance of mother! is that no one reading erases any competing exegeses. Ask five intelligent people how they read the film and you will likely receive five different explanations, complete with convincing evidence to support each theory. The comingling of these artistic impulses is invigorating. Although he apparently wrote the film in a feverish five days, Aronofsky has managed to create a symbolic work that is staggeringly coherent.

However, mother! is not merely a film to analyze and intellectualize. Yes, there’s a joy to unlocking its symbols during the runtime and few films lend themselves as easily to analysis after the fact, but the experience of watching mother! is itself dazzling. Although the entire film takes place within the house, the space seems limitless and the camerawork dazzles in transforming the inside of the home into a house of wonders.

There’s a nightmarish energy to the progression of images, as the house shifts into different forms and demonstrates a seemingly-endless spatial capacity throughout the runtime. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique mostly restrict the camera to close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence’s face, allowing her expressive reactions to guide our emotions. (There are echoes of Son of Saul in how the restrictive camerawork and close-ups both dull and amplify the horror of what happens outside the frame.) The sound design notably contributes to the intensity. The film lacks a conventional score, instead relying on directional sound design and blaring, scraping, almost guttural noises to guide us through the film’s emotions and ratchet up the tension.

Although the marketing was misleading, I can understand Paramount’s decision to advertise mother! as a horror film. Its intensity and nightmarish imagery lends itself to dread, even the occasional scare, although not in the conventional sense. It’s just that the film is about so much more than one experience or emotion. It is a film of multitudes.

That Aronofsky was able to acquire $30 million to make this film is flabbergasting. That the film is simultaneously so varied and so coherent is also stunning. Few films have been so successful at exploring the obsessions of their director while bearing fruit for the hungry viewer.

mother! is both personal and cosmic, a riveting engine for the themes and ideas that consume its director and happen to affect the totality of human experience.

9 out of 10

mother! (2017, USA)

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepu, Stephen McHattie, Laurence Leboeuf.