The last time I walked out at the end of a film like mother!, it was Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Initially, explaining how that film ended, or why, was a perplexing experience to those who listened and, frankly, even for me trying to describe it. However, unlike Anderson’s films, in Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature there is so little that needs to be reflected upon or really explained once that sense of perplexity has faded away. For the writer-director, in a highly self-satisfied fashion, reveals his remarkable lack of faith in the audience’s intelligence. mother! is, in part, about delusions, but the most striking one is Aronofsky’s own delusion of grandeur.
A young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her novelist husband (Javier Bardem) live in an almost labyrinthine, rustic fixer-upper in rural seclusion. Like the unfinished house, the marriage is uneasy for her to live in and unconsummated, with the husband finding any pathetic excuse to avoiding writing as she attempts determinedly to build domestic bliss. When a man (Ed Harris) and, later, his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) show up unannounced and inappropriately ‘make themselves at home’, the queasiness and tension of this scenario grows. Her husband’s nonchalant, inexplicable hospitality and the guests’ strange familiarity in her home increasingly unsettle her, leading to piercing and debilitating migraines. As these guests begin to outstay their welcome, she finds herself unable to motivate her husband to get them to leave. These pressures on her mind lead to startling hallucinations of decaying organs behind the wallpaper and bloody gaping wounds in the floorboards. The ring of the bell announces more unwelcome visitors and soon the domestic paradise that she has tried so hard to uphold starts to come down.
Aronofsky builds a queasy atmosphere throughout, creating a clear lack of certainty that is apparent from the very opening shot (brimstone and ash withdrawing to sleepy, wakeful bliss once a diamond is placed upon a pedestal) and lingers at the back of your mind. What is really going on here? becomes a restless question and as his camera holds suffocating close on an equally fretful Lawrence, you are inflicted with sheer perpelexity in your seat. As such, mother! becomes a delusional experience: continually contradicting your efforts to find sure footing with each bizarre new twist. There’s barely room to breathe between the doorbell and telephone ringing, the revolving- door of intruding guests and the cacophony of piercing noises that escalate and recede. Perhaps more disturbing than the peculiar (at times sickening) visuals and unwieldy action is the strained dialogue between Lawrence and Bardem: little undermining comments about Lawrence’s fitness and support as a wife that speak to the emotional and sexual stagnancy of the marriage. This prickly attitude is emphasised further by a leering quality that has others slyly comment on Lawrence’s body- which is only slightly covered by a thin greying nighty in the film’s opening. Whatever else Aronofsky does here, he still proves himself as a masterful manipulator in fashioning a psychologically unsettling experience that strikes at you on a number of levels (combined with Matthew Libatique’s grainy picture and dirty-white palette cinematography and sound designer Craig Henigan’s fraught soundscape).
Jarringly, Aronofsky cuts from stagnancy and paranoia to hysteria (with hysterics) and disbelief. Have you ever had company you didn’t want around? Ever worried about their etiquette in your home? Wanted them to leave but struggled to put this diplomatically? mother! presents these situations in a truly gratuitous fashion that regularly had me laughing in its escalating absurdity. Its broader emotional tones shift with the visuals in violent, kaleidoscopic ways: a funeral wake spins into a rave that becomes a riot then a war and concentration-camps within a matter of minutes. Yet the performances don’t hold up under this level of pretence and adaptation- despite the perfect execution of the embittered, intrusive dialogue by Lawrence, Bardem, Harris and Pfieffer. Even with Lawrence, and especially with Bardem, the characters feel too ‘tweaked’- our paranoia extending to the idea that we’re not seeing real people and thus waiting for the twist that reveals their ‘true’ nature and intentions. The weight of all this bears down upon the tense, prickly atmosphere that proceeded it and Lawrence’s believably unstable performance succumbs to screaming histrionics.
Which brings me to the divisive issue that has polarised viewers and critics alike: mother! is an allegory. While I don’t take issue with the neat deception the film plays on its audience, it is remarkable how unsubtle this becomes. Aronofsky doesn’t appear to trust his audience’s intelligence or imagination enough, meaning that the allegory has to be spelled out crystal-clear for you. This can dawn early on, but by the time you hit the film’s third act you can’t miss what mother! is really getting at (‘I’ll go prepare the apocalypse’ declares a weary Lawrence at the turning point). Unfortunately, unlike Sarah Kane’s infamous play Blasted which similarly drives chaos into the domestic setting (where Kane’s deteriorating space had a powerful, affronting commentary on moral declivities within war-zones) Aronofsky proves more than a bit pretentious and ultimately quite limited. The potential digressions which could have been interesting, in my view, (involving a particular scene where Lawrence refuses to hand over her baby to Bardem- a dark moment which in itself could have been a film) are ultimately unexplored. The overarching gender theme (aptly symbolised in the film’s stylised title with its intriguing grammatical and punctuation choices) is also undermined by that lack of interior life given to Lawrence’s character. While we feel a general sympathy for her plight and the severe physical and psychological abuse she suffers, any deeper characterisation is sacrificed so she becomes a mere cipher. Unlike Scorsese’s similarly twisty, upending Shutter Island, mother! is a film that you won’t need (or perhaps want) to see twice.
While not as bloated and bland as his previous Noah, mother! lacks that leaner, gruelling edge that made Black Swan so chilling and perceptive. In Black Swan, Aronofsky found and exploited the psychological ‘horrors’ of overbearing parent-child relationships, burgeoning, closeted sexuality and a desire for perfection that blended seamlessly with the backdrop of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. In mother!, the use of psychological horror is merely a veneer to a portentous allegory that offers only shallow cynicism, while falling short of even Monty Python’s satire on the hefty subject matter (see Life of Brian). mother! is a perplexing, humorous and visually arresting experience, but desires to be seen as much deeper and more grandiose and provocative than it really is. Instead, it comes across as the kind of ‘clever’ that is just smug.