My guess is there’ll be a lot to say about Darren Aronofsky’s new cinematic entry, mother!, by the time its all said and done. This isn’t a movie that can be characterized as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ necessarily. I’m not even sure how I feel about it, and that is due in large part to the fact that when it comes to Aronofsky, I skew to respecting his work more than enjoying his movies. He is talented and visionary and all the rest; I want to love him. He might be too good at what he does though – he manipulates an audience well, its just that I don’t often enjoy what he’s trying to make me feel. I was only able to sit through Requiem for a Dream one and a half times. I’m not overly squeamish, but that movie is intended to be lightless and unsettling. mother! is, in that sense, peak Aronofsky. This movie, too, rests on the liminal between the psychological and the spiritual, and explores a space where the mythical intrudes on what seems at first to be a reality recognizable enough as being our own. Aronofsky’s movies aren’t nightmare fuel, they’re the nightmare.
And that’s where the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ get fuzzy. The dialogue in this movie is stilted, and the opening scenes roll out with such a staged quality, it has the feel of regional theater. Even as the plot becomes more interesting, the dialogue never shakes this performativeness, regardless of who’s delivering it. It is unquestionably ‘bad’ by any modern standard of screenwriting. Javier Bardem is so distractingly self-conscious in the delivery of his lines, that the awkwardness of it can’t be anything other than intended. But the acting of the cast in general is really ‘good’ – and Jennifer Lawrence is outstanding. After the blandness of her blue mutant role (and others), it is nice to be reminded how she breached Hollywood as a deserving actress. J-law’s performance is where you realize this movie is not about the script – it’s about her – and its so good a performance it may even be great. That mother! feels like a play isn’t entirely inappropriate though, when by the end the plot has stretched to the proportions of something more like a Greek tragedy than your run of the mill horror/suspense flick. And that, in its own way, is really ‘good’.
That it defies genre is certainly to its credit – its messages and its delivery very evidently amount to more than just the cheap cinematic thrill. And while it effectively uses suspense and horror tropes in pursuit of its greater meaning, it winds in almost unwatchable scenes of the type for which The Passion of the Christ was critically castigated. There’s that fuzzy line again.
What mother! does better than almost anything else, particularly in its first two acts, is design empathy for its main character, (Lawrence) and that to the exclusion of anyone else onscreen. The sound design is remarkable in this regard; as she busies herself about the old house, its acoustics bring every otherwise out-of-earshot utterance to her awareness. We feel a sacredness of space in this house, and as she restores it, it is she who has claim to that space. We learn later this is a house that her writer-husband once lived in, until it was destroyed in a devastating fire. But it becomes increasingly more evident that he takes her, his home, and her restoration of it for granted. As a poet, he offers much by way of lip service, but he behaves erratically, angrily, and unpredictably throughout the whole movie. Eventually, he too becomes an intruder on the space she has created for the both of them, and it is at this point things spiral into a frenzied Aronofskrescendo. Much of the movie already highlights the denigration and neglect women face at the hands of society on both the micro and macro scale, but by the time the action hurtles toward narrative climax, that abuse reaches an uncomfortable heighth of violence and perversion.
In many ways this mirrors and responds to Aronofsky’s fanciful 2006 movie The Fountain, and serves to further illumine the messages in that movie, as well as the rest of Aronofsky’s oeuvre. Whereas The Fountain wraps in an ending of ecstasy and celestial zen , mother!’s finale is a torture spiral that is assaulting in its relentlessness. In place of the cosmic enlightenment of The Fountain, mother! offers the knowing of horrors – there is no accompanying satisfaction to this crescendo, just a sick sinking as Lawrence endures each progressively worse station of her cross. Which is, ultimately, the point of it.
I will be surprised if mother! doesn’t garner the vocal backing of most feminists; it is domestic horror successful at representing how truly invasive, presumptuous, and impositional we are with women. Lawrence’s character is literally a home-maker. She is the one who rebuilt it. She is the one who’s connected to it. It is more hers than anyone else’s and it, as well as her hospitality is offered up continuously without her permission, and with the expectation of her service. It isn’t done cruelly, at first. But the neglect and ignorance out of which it grows slowly becomes its own cruelty. We have no problem identifying with Lawrence as she’s on screen, it almost boggles the mind why none of the other characters are able to do so.
That is one of the seams underlying the construction of this nightmare wrapped in an allegory sprinkled with metaphor – Aronofsky is also drawing clear lines to environmentalist narratives. The mother!, of the title is clearly a reference to Lawrence’s Veronica, but she is only a mother for a precious few scenes. She is more a mother to Bardem, to his home, to his guests. When the house is nothing but the two of them, they live happily, harmoniously enough on a forested verdant hillscape. In this context, Lawrence is a goddess – a thriving, life sustaining Mother Earth. It is when Man’s self-importance leads him to impose upon her, to depreciate her value, that lights the fuse to the movie’s cacophonic climax.
Is it good? Is it bad? Will you like it? I don’t know. At the technical level its extremely well done, and its a movie that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It is masterfully executed. It successfully bangs around at the big, tectonic questions. And yet, like Requiem for a Dream, I doubt I’ll be able to watch it more than one and a quarter times.