I didn’t really know what to expect going into Mother! I knew it had an interesting cast–Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristin Wiig. I knew I had a generally favorable impression of Darren Aronofsky’s previous work-–I liked Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan all in an over-the-top, Grand Guignol kind of way. But what interested me most about the limited information I had was the divisive critical opinion surrounding the film. I try not to read articles about a movie I plan to write about before I’ve seen it, but the general impression seemed to be that the film inspired strong reactions, both negative and positive, with little in the way of a middle ground.
After seeing it, this makes complete sense. On the one hand, it feels like a half-baked, near incoherent mess, chock full of obscure motivations and deranged fantastical elements that cram uncomfortably into a narrative space not big enough for all of them. And yet… that very uncomfortable feeling seems to be crucial to the film on a more guttural level. I left the theater overwhelmed and breathless, having undergone a visceral experience that I did not fully understand but which was all the more nerve-shredding because of it. The reasons it fails on one level are the same reasons it succeeds on another.
It’s clear, at least, that Mother! is an allegory of some sort. It takes place entirely in a single house in an unspecified location. None of the characters have names–the crawl is a list of archetypal designations like Damsel, Philanderer, Fool, Wanderer, etc. There’s copious use of unabashed symbolism–the mysterious crystal in Javier Bardem’s office, the bleeding hole in the floorboards of a side room, Ed Harris’s lighter, et al. But the nature of the allegory, beyond a basic struggle between creation and destruction, is elusive. The artistic process, familial and relationship dynamics, feminism, communism, fascism, religion, environmentalism, existentialism, and on and on, are all thrown into this kitchen sink of possible interpretations that make it hard to pin down the movie as saying anything at all. Images and ideas push against the periphery without context or development, ending up in a space of basic epistemological doubt; when it comes down to it, I’m not really certain what actually happened in this movie.
But boy, did it happen. It’s worth noting the exclamation point in the title because the movie works to earn it from its first moments. It plays out like a home-invasion film; the camera stays uncomfortably close to Jennifer Lawrence’s face throughout in a claustrophobic space that keeps getting penetrated with escalating violence. At first it’s… well, not subtle, but more grounded, letting the audience feel like they know what’s happening before wrong-footing them with a bizarre narrative decision or nightmarish image. A backhandedly aggressive performance from Michelle Pfeiffer in particular sets a tone that begins plausibly but becomes increasingly surreal, ending in a balls-out apocalyptic horror-movie of a third act.
And it’s the complete inexplicability of the unfolding situation that makes it so terrifying. It’s easy to feel for Lawrence’s character, being left out of crucial information and feeling increasingly helpless; the harder she fights to get a hold on what’s happening, the less effect she’s able to have on the cataclysmic events going on in what is supposed to be a safe, personal space. Javier Bardem looms over her as tormentor/protector, but we ultimately know very little about even him and her pleas only seem to make the situation worse. There’s an energy in being pulled into that kind of terror and it’s one Aronofsky and crew exploit with a not insignificant level of thought and craft. I feel like this is a film that will reveal a lot of minute detail on rewatching, but it’s hard to speak to it now because I was so physically caught up in the moment.
So, what then? Is this a good genre movie? A bad art movie? Both? Neither? To what degree does it have to make sense to be successful? What even are the parameters of success here? How the hell am I supposed to approach a movie like this from a critical perspective? What I find most interesting about it, personally, is that it’s forcing me to have a real think about that question itself. But I don’t know what that means in terms of recommendation, which is ostensibly my purpose here.
I’m reminded of a recent New York Times article that got a lot of play about the film industry grousing about the reductivism of Rotten Tomatoes scores being so ubiquitous and a primary metric by which people decide to see movies or not. Such complaints come off as scapegoating–if the industry were more committed to making more interesting, less formulaic and insulting films, they’d probably get better scores–but a movie like this highlights that point from a different perspective. Trying to assign a number to this movie feels ultimately pointless; it’s too much like a Rorshach test for that kind of metric to carry any weight.
I don’t know if that’s a recommendation exactly. I don’t know if you should see this movie, if you’ll consider it worth your time or not. But I suspect–I hope, anyway–that it’s enough for you to figure that out for yourself.