5 out of 10
Jennifer Lawrence as Grace/Mother
Javier Bardem as Eli/Him
Ed Harris as Man
Michelle Pfeiffer as Woman
Brian Gleeson as Younger Brother
Domhnall Gleeson as Oldest Son
Jovan Adepo as Cupbearer
Amanda Chiu as Damsel
Patricia Summersett as Consoler
Eric Davis as Bumbler
Raphael Grosz-Harvey as Philanderer
Emily Hampshire as Fool
Abraham Aronofsky as Wanderer
Luis Oliva as Idler
Stephanie Ng Wan as Whisperer
Chris Gartin as Adulterer
Stephen McHattie as Zealot
Ambrosio De Luca as Defiler
Kristen Wiig as Herald
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the worst kind of film, but not in the way you may think or have heard. Exquisitely crafted and boundlessly ambitious, mother! is the kind of full-throated, mind-bendy art studios don’t bother with anymore, one which eschews classic narrative or entertainment drive in the search for thematic and textual complexity.
At least it wants to be, and on one level such desire is always to be rewarded because it is so rare. But on another it’s impossible to ignore how profoundly its reach exceeds its grasp, a failure that impacts not just mother! itself but all of its potential progeny.
Jennifer Lawrence is the Mother of the film, or at least she wants to be. The young wife of an influential poet (Bardem), she’s put her dreams of motherhood aside to help her husband find his lost inspiration after the tragic death of his first family. Primarily by rebuilding his old house from scratch, just as it was, creating a literal nest for herself while her husband cloisters himself in his study and tries to write. The semblance of peace is shattered, however, when a Man (Harris) and later his pushy wife (Pfeiffer) barge into their peaceful home and start making it their own.
If Aronofsky’s long-standing interest in creation and religion, going all the way back to Pi, isn’t a good clue as to what he has in mind here, the fact that the characters all have religiously-themed descriptors instead of names should be. And if that’s not enough, once Harris returns from a walk in the woods with a rib missing, and Pfeiffer suddenly shows up, it should be clear we’re not dealing with a simple thriller about unruly houseguests.
Aronfosky intends nothing less than to make a grand statement about the Abrahamic religions and the father figure that bestrides them. For the first hour of its running time, he seems like he might manage it, balancing out the strange dream logic of the plot with richer thematic hints and a heavy sense of psychological dread.
A lot of that is down to Lawrence, who fuses with Aranofsky’s directorial focus effortlessly. In part that’s because she has no choice – mother! is told literally from her point of view. The camera remains locked in close-up on her face for almost the entire film, moving with her as she moves and only occasionally backing up to place her within the context of her world.
Everyone else, by contrast, is kept at a remove, only becoming clear when they actually get into Lawrence’s face. It leaves everyone except Pfeiffer, who gets to be wonderfully bitchy all too briefly, ill-defined proxies for ideas. Because they don’t matter, at least not as people – even the arrival of the Man’s two sons arguing over his love (which ends exactly how you expect it to) exists only to increase Lawrence (and our) apprehension at the strangeness of what’s going on.
And in her permanent close-up Lawrence has no choice but to give it her all, playing into the Mother’s mounting neurosis which begin to suggest even the physical elements of the house itself are turning against her. Her face crumbles into paroxysm, a living reading of a Charlotte Gilman story. It’s a feint but a skillful one as Aronofsky creates the best rendering of internalized psychological trauma since Repulsion, until the true believers start showing up.
The strange visit of the Man and Woman, as traumatizing as it has been for Grace, has gotten Eli working again on his magnum opus, a work so transformative soon the entire world (it seems) is on his door step. Rather than send them away as Grace wants, Eli beckons them in, initiating the film’s transformation from quiet psychological thriller to religious allegory as it plays several centuries worth of the history of (very specifically) the Christian church, turning all of its subtext into text and saying ‘look how weird this thing really is.’
It’s fertile ground for thematic exploration but beyond using it as a launch pad for some whacked-out imagery in the last 30 minutes Aronofsky does nothing with it. Like late period Buñuel, he seems to find the idea of the film so potent, he doesn’t have to do anything but present it over and over again. For all his hard work, all we’re left with is a thesis — God is an impotent narcissist with writer’s block — with no development.
The idea that the God described by the Church is incongruous and at best a little messed up inside is not new, it needs furthering. But rather than do so, Aronofsky spends precious screen time just writing it over and over again in giant neon letters on a billboard and then shouting it out at passersby, making sure no one leaves the theater without the clearest possible understanding of what he’s talking about.
It’s not conducive to the artistic statement he seems to want mother! to be. The allegory simply cannot maintain the weight of bluntness he has laid atop it. It stops being insightful and starts becoming risible.
There’s a real urge, when something like this comes along, to applaud it if for no other reason than to make sure it gets tried again. And there’s real fear that if it doesn’t work no one will be given the opportunity to try again until it does. But at the same time the work must speak for itself and for all vision and ambition at play in mother!, the film itself is stuck with a terminal case of Tourette’s.