So far, with the exception of “Beauty and the Beast”, “Wonder Woman”, “Dunkirk”, and “It”, 2017 has been a rather dull year at the movies. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so as the box office is reporting record low returns. This is concerning to anyone who is a lover of cinema.
In comes Darren Aronofsky to save us from mediocrity. If you’re not familiar with the name, he directed “Requiem for a Dream”, “The Wrestler”, “Black Swan” and “Noah”. I’d summarize those first three as well-crafted pictures I respect artistically, but have no desire to re-watch because of how bleak, depressing, and psychologically fucked up they all are. “Noah” on the other hand was a different beast entirely. A big, Hollywood, Bible epic, that, according to the directors own admission, was meant to be a secular take on the story of Noah’s Ark, but ended up being one of the most biblically accurate films to date.
Since that film I’ve been eager to see how Aronofsky might be able to apply his unique style to other big budget fare. He was my top fan pick for a solo Batman movie (I’d love to see his take on The Joker or Scarecrow) so for the past couple years I visited his Wikipedia page frequently to see what he was up to. When it said he was working on a new film called “mother!” starring real-life girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence I couldn’t hold back my disappointment. It seemed like such a waste of his talents.
Well, simply put, I was wrong. “mother!” is an exceptional work of psychological horror and biblical allegory directed by a master of the craft.
Based on the trailer, I expected this movie to be about some kind of Anti-Christ / Devil character, his satanic cult of worshipers, and his meek wife who observes it all and becomes increasingly paranoid. Knowing Aronofsky though, I half expected it to look like that, but turn out to be another deep dive into insanity, with everything being in the wife’s head (ala Black Swan). I won’t divulge too many details (spoiling this film would be a crime) but I was happy to see it subverted both those expectations.
The film really acts as two films. The first is a slow-paced but still quite effective domestic thriller about a poet (Javier Bardem) facing writer’s block, and his homemaker wife (Jennifer Lawrence), settling into their huge home out in the middle of nowhere. Their quiet life is disrupted by the arrival of several waves of visitors including Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer who the husband is very friendly and receptive to, while his wife is less so. This makes up a bulk of the film (about 3/4ths) and explores the strain placed on the relationships of creative people, who draw upon their personal lives for inspiration and then share it with the whole world. There’s also just the right amount of odd “blink and you’ll miss it” moments to make you suspect something else is afoot.
It’s the last fourth of the film, however, where things start to descend into complete “WTF is going on here” territory, and it becomes a different film entirely. It’s a final act that goes from relative clam, to the extremely bizarre, fast. The camera follows tight with Lawrence as each set piece unfolds, and although there are cuts between takes, it’s so expertly stitched together it feels like a seamless tracking shot that would do Alfonso Cuarón proud. It’s a long, interchanging sequence that evokes real-world horrors of civil unrest, war, and cult ritual, along with hellish nightmares and apocalyptic imagery. What stood out most was just how well directed it all was. The only thing I’ve ever seen like it was ending of Rob Zombie’s “Lords of Salem”, but that was a trainwreck by comparison.
Earlier, I mentioned the feeling that something else was going on in the film. Your overall impression of the film will likely rely on whether you pick up on what this is or not. If you don’t, “mother!” may come off as a pretentious, self-indulgent, art film that will have you scratching your head, or looking for the door. However, if you make the connection and what it all represents, it becomes apparent that this is the work of a genius. You begin recollecting the symbolism, it begins to click, and it leaves you wanting to immediately see the movie again to pick up on all the details you may have missed.
The only thing keeping me from giving “mother!” a perfect score is that there are certain liberties taken and moments that require you to suspend your disbelief, particularly character behaviors, and the sense of time. I’d have been more impressed had it all worked out perfectly in both the real world and the metaphysical one. As it stands though, “mother!” is still the biggest mind fuck movie of the year, and will have you dissecting its true meaning long after leaving the theater. Highly recommended.
THE REBEL DOMAIN SCORE: