Review: mother! / Dylan

Hands shielding eyes, seats creaking from the writhing of discomfort, and mouths agape in astonishment. After seeing mother! one can only wonder how studio execs reacted after seeing this swirling, grinding, squirm-inducing nightmare. Inviting its tentative audience to crack open its ribs and tightly squeeze its rapidly beating heart; mother! is certainly one of the most provocative and eclectic films to come out of a major studio in years.

mother! is the latest film directed, produced, and written by the consistently perplexing and disturbing Darren Aronofsky, with a fantastic cast including Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who lead what seems like a cast of thousands. mother! draws upon the ideas of religion, obsession, artistry and legacy, as well as the macabre and surreal imagery that has defined Aronofsky’s oeuvre, but it has a decidedly different flavour to that of Black Swan or Noah. mother! has a profoundly singular vision, one that is quite brilliant, consistently unsettling, at times narcissistic, and certainly unyielding.

The grand, auteur-driven nature of mother! is shown immediately by the film’s excellent technical execution. The cinematography by Aronofsky’s long-time collaborator Matthew Libatique is the duo’s best yet; entirely handheld and shot on 16mm, audiences can’t help but be sucked in by its ragged, well-worn sensibility. But even more exciting is the way the images distort and twist as the camera spins and shakes with every movement, focussing in on Lawrence’s porcelain face as we seem to take on the role of her house. We only see the world of mother! from the perspective of the title character, and the decision to take  this claustrophobic, suffocating approach is effective throughout. I also must praise the sound design, which is notable for its staggering attention to detail. Three-dimensional and multi-layered, we hear every creak of the floorboard, every shard of glass, every rustle of rocks and dirt. Even when the film is at its most cacophonous, the precision of sound remains consistent. As for the performances, each actor brings their best. Lawrence’s powerful emotional response maintains the character’s sense of innocence and genuine horror throughout, while Bardem is both invitingly warm and disquietingly cold. Pfeiffer brings her meanest, most conniving attitude yet, as each word she hisses stings with a bit of acid.

I’ve yet to discuss much of the plot or script of mother!, as I think it’s crucial to go into the film with very little knowledge of what it entails. While it makes the experience far more torturous, it also makes it far more engaging and puzzling, so if you’re not interested in spoilers, please don’t read on.

As much as I would like to distance the technical greatness of mother! from its script, unfortunately its heady symbolism and themes aggressively thrust their way into every element of the film. This is, for many films, a sign of great clarity, the problem for mother! is that its script is its greatest flaw. Apparently written in days, it’s an ambitious pastiche of references, as Aronofsky fuses a somewhat forced and perhaps flagrant Biblical allegory with a personal concern with for an artistic legacy. On top of this, themes of gender inequality are framed through a disruptive and one-sided marriage, and other elements of the script have tastes of political, environmental, and social commentary.

mother! is essentially a film about two artists, a woman who lives to support her husband, and a husband who has spent his entire marriage neglecting and gaslighting his wife. The title character has built a living, breathing home, but she is never called its owner; her husband is a poet, but he writes for everyone except his wife. The film tries to maintain this message from start to finish, but this often takes a backseat to the strong Biblical allegory behind it. We see Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, we see religious persecution, we see Noah’s flood, we see the birth and death of Christ. Bardem’s character has an endless number of insane fans (and later, followers) who, apparently, misinterpret his words and acts of sharing and love for selfishness and greed. When these foreign elements begin interfering with the lives of mother and Him (as they are listed in the credits), the heart of the house begins decaying, and Lawrence begins shaking and screaming in pain, as she plays what is Aronofsky’s allegory for Mother Earth, a feminine God, or the voice of the female artist who is drowned out under society’s endless worship of men.

Again, this is an ambitious and intriguing script that certainly deserves respect for its symbolic complexity. However, at times, mother! is also a bit of a mess. Every chunk of grey matter that Aronofsky rips out of his head does not always stick to the wall, and by the film’s end we are berated with so many things it moves from being intriguingly captivating, to relying on straight up shock value. By the time a crowd of religious fanatics dig into the remains of a slaughtered baby, one can’t help but feel the message is diluted due to Aronofsky’s devotion to his grand vision. The layers of subtext that Aronofsky wants to blend together begin to separate, especially by the film’s end, some reigning in and focus was needed. Aronofsky has in fact stated that if the film’s logic is “unscrewed… it kind of falls apart… you shouldn’t over-explain it,” but I can’t help but feel that mother! demands explaining. Its abstract style demands that audiences rationalise its array of references, but handles them so loosely that it becomes hard to be invested in its story, and to find any semblance of continuity.

And yet, for all the problems I find in mother!, the profound effect it’s had on me is undeniable. I can’t stop thinking about the story and all its riddles and references, nor can I commend it enough for its technical greatness. Because, for all the messiness and misfires that I’ve considered retrospectively, the experience of watching mother! is truly spellbinding. It’s a movie that will develop strong, fantastical reactions in many, positive or negative, and its ambition and creativity deserves commendation. It is rare that a film comes along that has so many people talking and thinking like mother! has, especially on such a wide, mainstream release. It shows Aronofsky in expert technical form, sending us hurtling through his mind as we gaze with horror at what flies at us, every image grotesquely transforming into something even worse. While I am hesitant to recommend mother! to anyone, I cannot deny that it captivates from start to finish. It has an exclamation mark for a reason.

Written by Dylan Stevens (17), edited by Jessica Ellicott (as part of the Film in Revolt writing mentorship program).

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