Director: Darren Aronofsky Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer Running Time: 121 minutes
Lurching out of a screening of mother! I had the chance to ask someone what they thought to which I was informed: “Eh, I kind of hated it”. It’s as good a line as any to begin on the Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky’s divisive latest, an allegorical horror very loosely about a married couple under siege.
That isn’t really what the film is about, nor is it heavy on literal plot but what outline there is follows an unnamed married couple, respectively listed as Him and mother in the credits and played here by Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, living in a formidable house in the middle of an idyllic nowhere.
She’s devoting her time to rebuilding this mansion as a paradise, while he’s a celebrated poet suffering an extreme case of writer’s block. As best I could tell their daily routine consists of her lovingly pouring over every detail in reviving the house, preparing his meals and attentively trying to avoid irritating her artistically constipated older lover. She’s utterly devoted to him; he seems lightly annoyed by her. At this point a wandering stranger (titled ‘man’ and played by Ed Harris) comes into their lives. He claims to be a local doctor, new in town who arrived thinking their isolated home is a B&B and is allowed to spend the night by Bardem. He’s swiftly followed by his wife (listed as ‘woman’ and played by Michelle Pfieffer). The poet casually invites them to stay, oblivious to the concern of his wife who watches as the unwanted pair brusquely make themselves at home.
Pfieffer’s especially enjoyable in these scenes being casually inappropriate. Whether assessing her hosts underwear, prying into her sex life, barging into private spaces, getting nicely liquored in the afternoon or just being lightly dismissive she’s the brightest spark of the opening half. This couple’s arrival begins a chain of events which open the floodgates for a series of bigger intrusions which violate the sanctity of this home our leading lady has so carefully tried to cultivate. To offer any further detail would risk spoiling the film save to say it appears to be a union of environmental commentary delivered through blunt religious symbolism. Not for nothing does this follow Aronofsky’s rather more digestible 2014 eco-blockbuster Noah.
His latest work is anything but an audience pleaser. For all its operatic tendencies it has little to none of the power of Aronofsky’s own far less bombastic work in The Wrestler. Whereas that film was about human beings mother! is exclusively interested in metaphor and while this allows for some potent chaos in the last stretch of the picture it doesn’t offer anything in the way of human interest to work alongside the religious allegory and environmental critique. There’s no palpable sense of a relationship between the two leads. They fit into their respective slots for the parable but nothing more. This doesn’t negate the film’s message but it does result in a very detached viewing experience.
It’s also not, as certain promotional material seems to suggest an extreme horror picture to be shocked by. Boiled down to the most basic description much of the running time is spent watching Lawrence gamely react to repeated offence against her and her home. Granted these actions become more pronounced as the story progresses but most of the first two-thirds running time you’re watching a variation of Lawrence in either polite or severe discomfort. This routine never quite manages to fully lose interest but nor does it snap into life enough, particular as nothing here can be taking at face value, to generate legitimate concern for what’s happening to anyone onscreen.
Also worth noting is plenty of reviews have flagged mother! as a brilliantly deranged jet black comedy. All I can offer here is if Aronofsky did imbue his film with a comic sensibility I was decidedly out of step with it. Lack of laughs aside it is demonstrably a claustrophobic piece of cinema. Virtually every shot is carried out over mother’s shoulder, on her face, or from her POV. This minuscule breathing space only constricts as more unexpected visitors appear.
There are some moments which for sheer lunacy will stay with me. A very famous cameoing actor participating in a mass slaughter for one and the entire final 20 minutes just for everything the director suddenly and furiously drops in. There’s a reckless abandon to the last act escalation of carnage which brings a suitable amount of oooomph to an occasionally jaw dropping conclusion. It’s not nearly enough to recommend mother! but it does guarantee a lasting impression to an otherwise bizarre wide release from Paramount.(1.5 / 5)