Photo credit: Variety
By now it’s no secret that Darren Aronofksy has a thing. Mind-bending, epistemological thrillers are his bread and butter, and the intensity with which his latest pursues this motif pretty much seals that deal. Like Farhadi’s beleaguered families or Herzog’s dreamers, Aronofsky airs his inspirations and fascinations in very clear and consistent terms across his artistic output. What makes Mother! stand out, though, is the way in which it turns this act of sharing in on itself, bringing the director’s usual symbol-heavy and dreamy filmmaking to a deeply personal place. The result is an adversarial and harrowing reflection on the act of creation, one that feels archetypal in ways that make me wonder how this exact film had not been made sooner. The film centers its attention on Jennifer Lawrence’s character (unnamed, like the rest), the short-suffering wife of Javier Bardem’s successful but temporarily frustrated poet. She’s been renovating their cavernous, stately old farmhouse, her husband’s childhood home, while he ruminates and waits for inspiration to strike. When a lost and road-weary traveller (Ed Harris, wonderfully off-putting as ever) mistakes their home for a bed and breakfast, Bardem’s poet sets him up with room and board in short order. From there, more guests begin trickling into the house (including Harris’s wife, played by a deliciously rude and foreboding Michelle Pfeiffer), social contracts and prized possessions are broken, the trickle of visitors becomes a flood, and the poet’s wife reels through a series of panic attacks as reality slips ever further from her control and plummets into a fantastical frenzy. This synopsis alone should imply a fairly obvious thematic upshot, one that sees Aronofsky working through some painful self-evaluation.
This blend of the allegorical and autobiographical lends itself to the sort of psychoanalysis that I don’t have much interest in unpacking, especially since the film does a lot of that legwork for the viewer. What I will say is that the darker side of this coin is the way the film’s deeply rooted misogyny reflects back on the writer/director. Lawrence floats through the house in sheer lounge-wear for the majority of the film, and caters to the needs of her husband and his guests with infinite doe-eyed patience. She weathers lascivious glances and catcalls from strangers, and her trials take on a violent redoubling as the film barrels through an explosive third act. With later nods to a larger system of prejudice towards women, it’s clear that the film wants to say something about the current, global state of womanhood. But it never quite sticks the landing, and the conceit falls to the same illogic that would otherwise make for a rewarding discomfort in the film’s nightmare world. It’s easy to keep a piece like Mother! on a long leash. After all, a film committed to sounding the ugly depths of both a personal and national unconscious is going to replicate some uncomfortable and downright distasteful realities. But the exploitation feels unearned, and narrative laziness that rests too much artistic weight on the backs of the oppressed should be snuffed out. Leave the warping of culture and ideology for the fascists, I say, and save us from the sort of authoritative, ruminative, too-prevalent woman-hating commonplace to contemporary caricatures like the Recently Divorced Man.
The really unfortunate thing is that up until a finale that firmly puts Mother! on this ethically shaky ground, the film has some fun with the macho “manic writer” trope by focusing on what happens to Jennifer Lawrence (instead of making the writer a man of action, like Jack Torrance). This empathy is coupled with claustrophobic blocking and framing, making aesthetic hay from the increasingly unjust invasions of privacy to which the poet’s wife is subjected. And the world that she has built for them is given due respect in the set design, with fixtures taking on narrative importance, flooring damage that feels emotionally wrought, and a meditative wall-painting sequence that is threaded through the film as an island of calm. The use of domestic space here, an attention to detail that is perverted to chilling effect, is captivating (and shows the continued impact that James Wan & co. have had with The Conjuring; they should be proud). It is matched with a soundscape that deserves recognition, as the house’s creaks and echoes lend a rhythmic quality to the film in place of a musical score. And the lighting scheme disarms as well as it disturbs, providing a soft naturalism by day and queasy high contrasts by night (Harris’s craggy face looks downright skeletal here). Lawrence channels her usual vacillations between bleak vulnerability and willful agency, a high-wire act that few can navigate as well as she. As much as the tight quarters and waves of invasion might lend themselves to a litany of jump scares, I echo Michael Koresky in thinking that the scarier moments are those that eschew horror convention and instead pick at a much subtler sense of social unease.
Ultimately, Mother! is well-crafted and deeply unsettling; a thing that stretches the limits of genre and makes one appreciate the raw, ethereal power of film. A modern day, surreal Bluebeard à la (Stephen) King that’s fun to parse as the mystery unravels. All that said, the most I can muster by way of an endorsement is that I’m glad it exists. I’m left with too bad a taste in my mouth over the mythopoetic misfires to feel any sort of elation at the dark wonder of it all. And I continue to find Aronofsky’s brand of puzzle-piecing a somewhat overbearing and ungenerous affair. He said of Mother!, “if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.” He doesn’t benefit from being in the wake of David Lynch, the Granddaddy of the Dream Enigma whose recently-concluded Twin Peaks: The Return is a gift that I’m still not quite sure we deserved. Perhaps this film was just something that Aronofsky needed to get out of his system (as the popular account goes, he wrote it in a 5 day frenetic burst), and he can now settle in to something a bit more measured and memorable.