Since his debut film Pi in 1998, director Darren Aronofsky has cultivated a unique brand of esoteric cinema that implants itself into audiences’ brains and refuses to nudge, and that’s probably the best way to explain his latest film, mother! Similar to how his movies stick, mother! is a tale of refusal: the refusal to take no for an answer and the refusal to provide help to audiences’ along the way. A game cast quite literally gives the film their all but it’s hard to ignore the ugly treatment its leading lady receives, coupled with a story that – though open to multiple interpretations – never rises above a pretentious and scummy tale of male exploitation of women, both on and off-screen.
An unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in an idyllic country home with her husband (Javier Bardem). When the two are inundated with unexpected houseguests (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), it threatens the younger couple’s relationship and the woman’s very life.
Hearing that Aronofsky wrote this script in five days makes sense because when it isn’t just following people ceaselessly clomping up and down stairs, it’s a wild, grotesque take on the Cat in the Hat with Jennifer Lawrence as the beleaguered children trying to stop Thing 1 and Thing 2 from ruining her kitchen. The audience is told little about the unnamed characters played by Lawrence and Bardem – called Mother and Him on IMDb. We know they’re married. He’s a poet with writer’s block and she spends her day renovating their house. It isn’t until the arrival of Harris and Pfeiffer’s equally unnamed characters, referred to as Man and Woman, that the faults in Mother and Him’s relationship are shown.
The arrival of Man and Woman is mother’s! saving grace. Harris’ arrival is met with joy by Him but understandable concern by Mother but once Man cross the threshold the film becomes the graphic equivalent of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Harris and Pfeiffer let loose and are given free rein to be mysterious, manipulative and frustrating. Harris’ Man is the level-headed one in the group, a sycophant for He. Pfeiffer has the juicer role if only because she commands ferocity in every frame. Pfeiffer’s masterful control of side-eye conjures up more terror than this film’s entire third act. The weird black comedy – never properly maintained throughout the entire movie – comes through best with Pfeiffer whose childishness “we said we were sorry” never fails to endear. It is Pfeiffer and Harris who introduce Mother to a soap opera as their disparate family members soon arrive, squabbling over wills and money, one of several threads the script wants you to believe it knows will be left unsatisfied.
The film’s gaping ambiguity in every frame leaves just as many people to argue there’s no method to Aronofsky’s madness as there are people who say there is. It’s evident Aronofsky thinks highly of himself and one of many interpretations to mother! is that the film is about the perceived struggles of loving a man who is just so awesome everyone falls in love with him. Though Aronofsky has said this interpretation isn’t true, he’s aware that people could see it as such. (He’s said the film is about Mother as Mother Earth being taken advantage of.) The various interpretations – ranging from this being a marriage allegory to a metaphor on the mistreatment of women or a Barton Fink-esque look at writing – are all easily sussed out and tend to give Aronofsky the rope to create something that never rises above a desire to mistreat his leading lady.
To her credit Jennifer Lawrence does her utmost to inject Mother with something more than being a feminine prop for male usage, though the script enjoys falling back on that. She’s meek and mild, an eager to please wife willing to go any lengths for her husband. Her and Bardem’s chemistry is strained, and it doesn’t help that the film brings up their age difference – “She’s your wife? Thought she was your daughter.” – as a source of humor rather than criticizing the need for it. Predominately filmed in medium or close-up, the camera is in love with Lawrence, enhancing her role as the embodiment of all that’s good in the world. Characters reiterate that “she’s not just a pretty face” and that’d be true, but it often falls back on that to sexualize her. Case in point, a completely unnecessary introduction to her character in a see-through nightgown, breasts all but exposed.
Lawrence does convey the character’s increasing frustration and anxiety with the apocalypse that swirls around her. During a violent party she’s the mother, picking up after everyone and reminding them to get off the table. She’s chronically apologizing. Again, Aronofsky’s intentions are easily inferred, but it becomes far too pointed, dressing Lawrence as a Greek goddess and turning into the mother invention. The third act puts her through the gamut and almost takes a gleeful joy in her suffering, culminating with an atrocious beating captured in blistering close-up. Are we watching an actress act or receiving an excuse for the director to demean her? As with much of the movie, interpretations are varied.
This ends up leaving Javier Bardem with little to do but be the unsympathetic jerk who doesn’t deserve any of his success. But this also leaves him feeling superfluous. The male component necessary by which the plot runs. Domhnall Gleeson is also wasted in two scenes, disappearing as quickly as he arrived.
mother! is easily one of the most unenjoyable experiences of the year. The film’s pretension becomes cumbersome and reliant on the audience buying into its “ambiguity.” The plot is meaningless, Lawrence – though great – is tormented for perceived enjoyment, and the overall impact of the film feels like we should be kicking Aronofsky in the balls rather than praising him.