"mother!" (2017) Review
I just want to know.
I just want to know how Darren Aronofsky got away with making this. I want to know not only how he convinced a studio like Paramount to back mother!, but I want to know how he convinced Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer to participate.
It's not that Aronofsky isn't a talented professional, he absolutely is. Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem For A Dream are all universally recognized not only as critical film darlings but as must see films (well, The Wrestler not as much, but only because it's arguably the most depressing of the three films and that's really saying something). But what's really worth talking about with that particular list of films is zeroing in on Black Swan, a film that had a particular set of sensibilities in the sense that it pulled from multiple genres. At times, it pulled from Giallo horror films from directors like Dario Argento, mostly in its setting. It pulled from body horror maestros like David Cronenberg. It even pulled from the anime film Perfect Blue, literally remaking an entire scene in live-action.
mother! exists in a similar vein in that its pulling from a lot of different sources, and while the marketing might lead you to believe that its pulling from films like Rosemary's Baby, it's not. At all. mother! pulls mostly from something else entirely, a subject deeply related to other films in Aronofsky's filmography up to this point. This is where I have to get real vague to not give the plot away, but this also where I'm going to emphasize a fact about this review.
At the end of this review, in the final paragraph, I'm going to dive into some spoilers. I won't give away the entire film by any means, but it's damn near impossible to have a discussion about mother! without talking about its obvious inspiration. I'm not going to do that yet though, but I'll write another warning in this review when I do.
Okay? Okay. Let's keep treading lightly.
Another point worth addressing in this review is that I just saw mother! yesterday after its opening weekend. I'm aware of its infamous "F" rating from Cinemascore and I'm aware of the contempt this film inspires. I mostly blame that contempt on a marketing campaign that tried to make this look like a haunted house cult film when the reality is so much different than that. mother! is the definition of blunt-force trauma allegory, where no character is really a character and no furnishings in the house are actually just furnishings. Everything in the film is more or less symbolic.
The story in its vaguest terms concern a husband (Javier Bardem) and wife (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a large house. They are cut off from the rest of the world. The wife is happy and dedicated to rebuilding the house, hand mixing her own pigments of paint wall by wall. Her husband, a once great poet, struggles to create anything. That is, until unwanted guests start arriving at the house and the poet insisting that the guests stay in the house while the wife grows more and more anxious as more and more guests keep arriving.
mother! feels like an absurdist play out of Europe in the early 1900s or like a Luis Buñuel film from the 1950s or 1960s. But the big difference between mother! and either of those things is that while a Buñuel film or an absurdist play would have some jokes to occasionally diffuse the madness, mother! opts for never delivering a single joke. The end result feels like the film is holding you hostage, especially since the film's cinematography is almost entirely handheld and close-up on Jennifer Lawrence's bewildered face. Films about people trapped in caves like The Descent and 127 Hours feel less claustrophobic than this to the point that mother! is overwhelmingly stressful to sit through at times.
Especially when the last half starts. The last half of mother! is where the "movie holds you hostage" metaphor really kicks into high gear, so much so that when some actual guns start going off, that's the least of anyone's worries because worse things are yet to come. The last half is seriously grueling and the film's biggest caveat. If you're squeamish about intense filmmaking, stay away from mother!. But, and I can't emphasize this enough, if you're pregnant or have recently become a parent:
Stay the hell away from mother!.
If you've made it this far into the review, you might have noticed that I haven't actually talked about how much I like the movie, and that's because I still don't know how to feel about it. On one hand, it's one of the least subtle allegorical films I think I've seen in my entire life. On the other hand though, I can't help but admire this film's existence at all.
mother! doesn't feel like the seventh movie from any accomplished director. That's not to say that mother! feels like amateur filmmaking, it's absolutely top-notch filmmaking with some really great performances from some truly exceptional actors. In tone and setup though? It feels like someone's Sundance debut, the kind of arthouse movie that some recent college graduates would have shot in an actual abandoned house somewhere on the edge of a midwestern town on a budget that could buy about half a ham sandwich.
mother! feels like if one of those arthouse films suddenly got $30 million and the creative forces involved were given top-notch art directors, Hollywood grade actors, and dozens upon dozens of extras, all while being told to, "Just go for it." The fact that Paramount decided to throw their weight behind something like this is truly unbelievable to me, and for that, mother! deserves praise. It has enough technical merit and great direction going for itself that even though I caught onto its allegory about a third of the way through, I wanted to see how Aronofsky was going to visualize other events from the story he was clearly telling, no matter how horrific the results.
So, with some caution, I think people should see mother!. If anything in this review makes this sound like the kind of movie that you'd dig, see this film while you can before theaters inevitably push it out for another major release as the end of the 2017 movie season ramps up. However, if the idea of an arthouse film blown up to mass proportions sounds like a hellish time, mother! isn't going to be the film for you. People will be talking about this film, and while I'm not sure for how long, it's worth at least having a conversation about a major studio backing the film at all. Overall, I enjoyed it. And the allegory is worth discussing too.
Speaking of that allegory...
The paragraph after this is where I'm going to spoil something about this film. If you DO NOT want to be spoiled on mother! and want to go into the film fresh, do not read beyond this point. I'm going to throw some extra spaces after this for good measure. All right, here we go.
So, Aronofsky sure couldn't shake the Bible out of his system after making Noah. All kidding aside, mother! is one of the more obtuse, weird, mean, and scathing retellings of the Bible and organized religion I've seen on film in a long time. The fact he tries to cover as much of the Bible as he can, from Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, all the way to the birth of Christ, is definitely ambitious and so over the top that I couldn't help but enjoy it by the end. If you don't have a huge familiarity with the Bible though, a lot of mother! will be lost on you.
And man, Aronofsky has a hell of a way of showing communion.