mother!: A Staggering, Multifaceted Allegory

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Editor’s Note: mother! is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

mother! is a work of art that runs so deep and tackles so much that it’s difficult to fully encapsulate even within a long form review. It’s the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, whom we can always rely on to deliver works of audacious artistry and frightening surrealism, but even coming from the auteur behind The Fountain and Black Swan, mother! is brazenly bizarre. Befitting the filmmaker’s give-no-shits artistic philosophy, the film doubles down on its thematic and stylistic extremes, refusing to explain itself or offer a clean through line for viewers. Instead, it’s a staggering multifaceted allegory to be parsed and pondered over time.

All of this may seem like a quagmire divergent catastrophes, but of course that is Aronofsky’s point. There is nothing easy or clean about the world we live in.

Of course, a film as unabashedly fanged as this one is more likely to spark polarizing overreactions, and indeed, it already has. But swift dismissals, and even swift embraces, undercut the swirling depth of the work. mother! boils over with bald-faced anger, but only as a result of its bold and unflinching expedition through interweaving layers of social and environmental unrest, a veritable thematic tempest that thoroughly earns the exclamation point that punctuates its title. It’s a cinematic torture chamber, though one that is incessantly and irrepressibly invigorating in its disconcerting presentation of a mad world collapsing within the walls of a single house.

That house belongs to a couple – he (Javier Bardem) is a famous poet who is struggling to pen his latest piece and she (Jennifer Lawrence) is dutifully bearing the burden of single-handedly remodeling the home. Their dynamic is curious – it’s not merely that he’s obviously much older, but the implications that extend from that disparity. He’s consumed by his frustration, but he’s allowed to be; she is tirelessly doting, but it never seems to be enough. It’s the simplest possible display of the gender divide; entitlement is permitted for one but not the other. Yet things only get worse for our longsuffering heroine upon the arrival of first a man (Ed Harris) and later his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose purpose is mysterious, whose persistent presence is entirely unnecessary, and whose actions can most politely be described as “overstepping.” Bardem welcomes all of the above with open arms, all the while ignoring Lawrence’s perfectly valid curiosity.

Befitting the filmmaker’s give-no-shits artistic philosophy, the film doubles down on its thematic and stylistic extremes, refusing to explain itself or offer a clean through line for viewers. Instead, it’s a staggering multifaceted allegory to be parsed and pondered over time.

Curiosity gives way to annoyance, which eventually gives way to revulsion. mother! isn’t so much a home invasion thriller as it is one of home imposition; the degree to which these uninvited guests freely claim dominion over a home that doesn’t belong to them is both aggravating and unnerving, and circumstances wildly conspire to increase the number of “guests” in the secluded Victorian estate, until the cacophony of humanity reaches a fever pitch. Lawrence spends most of the film in close-up, the camera whirling around her as the environment she has created becomes more claustrophobic moment by moment.

Structure is a curious beast in the film. Aronofsky’s screenplay unfolds in what appears to be two acts, both building to hysteria, with a clear dividing line in between: Lawrence’s character becomes pregnant, invoking the film’s title in the clearest possible manner. So if we consider this set-up: of two clear parts separated by a pregnancy and eventually careening into apocalyptic chaos, mother!’s biblical implications become clear. But that only offers the framework in which Aronofsky explores other themes with disturbing brashness, a structural nesting doll with multiple thematic layers.

Masculinity is a villain in the film, reckless and entitled, celebrated for even the least significant accomplishment while a feminine counterpart works twice as hard only to be ignored, defied, or openly loathed. And motherhood only offers the briefest of respites from the storm, before eventually compounding the treachery. In extension of the masculine recklessness is a more generalized human apathy, deteriorating over time into a sort of cavalier bulldozing of the environment we inhabit – first taken for granted and then actively abused. By the end, after she’s been put through countless ringers, it feels as though Lawrence is actually Mother Earth, powerless to her own destruction.

All of this may seem like a quagmire divergent catastrophes, but of course that is Aronofsky’s point. There is nothing easy or clean about the world we live in. Look around – turn on the TV, reads the news headlines, parse the tone of the times. It’s our very own reality that makes mother! so viciously upsetting; it’s an inescapable menagerie of humanity’s destruction that is eventually revealed to be a mirror.

 

9.0 AMAZING

All of this may seem like a quagmire divergent catastrophes, but of course that is Aronofsky’s point. There is nothing easy or clean about the world we live in. Look around – turn on the TV, reads the news headlines, parse the tone of the times. It’s our very own reality that makes mother! so viciously upsetting.

  • 9.0
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I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.