Mother! troubles me.
On one hand, the mysterious film, written and directed by Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky is one of the most ridiculous, vile, and profoundly disturbing films I think I’ve ever seen. On the other, I left the theater oddly fascinated by what I had just seen, trying to piece together the ashes the film left behind in an attempt to make sense of it all.
I acknowledge it’s a wasted effort, since very little of Mother! makes sense. Logic and reasoning holds no value here. The film is less a straightforward story than a heightened fever dream, getting progressively, unspeakably worse for the main character, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Her nameless character is wife to Javier Bardem’s nameless struggling poet, and she keeps herself busy by renovating their home in the middle of nowhere. We don’t much else about her life: her likes and dislikes, her hopes and fears, what the hell she sees in her aloof husband and why she stays in such a sterile marriage, and why she runs to the bathroom occasionally to drink a strange yellowish liquid mixture. She is a blank porcelain doll on paper, and the camera’s suffocating close-ups treat her as such.
What we do know is that she is isolated, in her marriage and from the outside world, which makes the appearance of a stranger in the middle of the night so peculiar – she never gets guests. Waiting at the door is a doctor (Ed Harris), who semi-politely muscles his way into the wife’s home at her husband’s bizarre insistence. He refuses to take her feelings and concerns into consideration, even as more and more of the doctor’s absolutely bonkers family pop up: a wildly inappropriate drunken wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two volatile adult sons. As you can imagine, her home quickly dissolves into mess, and she gets lost and frightened in her husband’s selfish and disrespectful hospitality. If the film followed this track of a couple being terrorized by a sinister family, you would have a perfectly nice, if not terribly exciting, thriller. Aronofsky doesn’t dabble in such trivia, so he jettisons that storyline in favor of utter anarchy in the film’s final third, driven by the husband’s sudden career resurgence. Then, the house truly becomes one of horrors, with the mother being subjected to some unspeakable acts (which I won’t spoil) in the name of Messianic worship of art.
Mother! isn’t clear on what it wants to be. Horror is the most obvious, but the film rarely frightens. Even though Jennifer Lawrence is put through absolute physical and emotional hell, the absurdity of her increasingly awful circumstances inspires hilarity as opposed to dread. There were several times throughout the film I – and the audience around me – dissolved into laughter as we watched the wife have ball after ball of crazy chucked at her for no other reason than just to see how she would handle it. The film could be a parody, but the actors play it so straight, without any acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of having your house consumed by increasingly rude and hostile interlopers. Plus, a parody of the horror genre wouldn’t be so committed to the shocking and outlandish acts of destruction and brutality as this film is.
If anything, Mother! is the most relentless parade of torture porn ever perpetrated on a mainstream actor, surpassing even Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. But what is it all for? The Revenant tells a story of otherworldly survival in the face of the unforgiving wilderness. Mother! lacks such a purpose; Aronofsky just seems to enjoy brutalizing his main character. Mother! does wink at allegorical meaning, either representing the cult of celebrity or religious fanaticism or humankind’s destruction of the environment. They are interesting concepts, and add some much-needed gravity, but they aren’t satisfyingly resolved or explored. The wife’s escalating mistreatment and lack of agency is surely a comment on sexism, but it is undercut by the sheer deviancy on display. Maybe the torture would feel earned if it was grounded in the characters, but the wife and husband are treated more like high-level concepts than real people. In the end, the spectacle is a glaring distraction.
It is a visually stunning distraction. Aronofsky does a masterful job at creating a claustrophobic, discomfiting atmosphere, even when his story undermines him. His camera rarely gets too far from Jennifer Lawrence, focusing squarely on her as she is figuratively ripped to shreds. Lawrence is an incredible actress and does what she can with the scraps of a character she’s given, delicately balancing meekness with increasing disgust and outrage at her life before she erupts into screams that were exhausting just to watch – I couldn’t even imagine what she went through acting it. Javier Bardem, who was dealt the same hand as Lawrence, pales slightly in comparison to her singular presence. This would be solely be a Lawrence showcase piece if not for a scene-stealing Pfeiffer and her sardonic venom.
Mother! is frustrating. It is hard to call it a terrible film when it is so well-made and audacious in its execution. It is impossible to call it a great film, because that execution is wasted on an intentionally hilarious plot and obsessively violent, gruesome sadism that feels aimless and perfunctory. Instead, we’re stuck with a film hard to define, hard to qualify, and hard not to laugh at. If Mother! is meant to be Darren Aronofsky’s singular vision of the world around him, then it’s also hard to tell if he’s a genius or a madman.