Review: mother!

Review: mother!

The on-screen pairing of actress Jennifer Lawrence and writer-director Darren Aronofsky, judging by their new film mother!, is one filled with problematic issues. 

I won’t dive into the nitty gritty details of the film until the second half of this review. Much of what's in the trailers lays out what you’re in store for in Aronofsky’s latest—a married couple played by Lawrence and Javier Bardem are visited by mysterious figures at their massive country house. Lawrence’s character (simply credited as Mother) starts to see heinous visions in the home; blood pulsing through floor boards, a Cronenbergian heart thumping through the walls, and a toilet clogged with… something. All of these visions start getting to Mother as the guests in her home take advantage of her hospitality.

Bardem plays a writer (credited as Him) who hasn’t written a word in weeks and thinks inviting strangers over will curb his inabilities. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer play the Man and the Woman who stay at the house. In a series of insanely staged scenarios, more people come to Mother and Him’s house and questions are raised—who exactly is Him and why is he gathering a strange following?

From the very first frame, it’s clear the film is dealing with supernatural elements. Shades of Roman Polanski’s work is prevalent—Lawrence is haunted by her surroundings, psychically and psychologically, much like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (and Mother does indeed get pregnant). The difference here is mother! does indeed invoke some startling imagery but it doesn’t amount to much by the time the film reaches its fiery end. The connection to Polanski’s work is blatant (it wears its Rosemary’s Baby influence on its sleeve), and it’s fair to see how exactly it stacks up against Polanski’s entries in the heralded ‘Apartment Trilogy’. In Repulsion, hands burst through the walls to grasp our female lead, asserting the sexual abuse trauma she’s recovering from, and in Rosemary’s Baby, Farrow struggles against a cabal determined to control her and her unborn child, an analogy for the patriarchy that (still) thinks it has a right to control a woman’s body. Once mother!’s final message is presented to the audience—like a hammer to a fly—the vivid imagery that built up through the movie feels insignificant. It's a cavalcade of horror with an oh-here-you-go ending that cements its female protagonist in a thankless role, retroactively letting the air out of any atmospheric dread the film had.

The problem resides with how Aronofsky treats Lawrence’s character, which is most likely out of design. Lawrence’s Mother is soft-spoken and entirely in love with Bardem’s Him to a fault. She takes no real action until the final act, mostly just moping about and complaining about Him’s decision to invite these strangers into their home up until she has to react. She does prove her strength and Lawrence eventually delivers a strong performance, but what exactly is Aronofsky saying with where he takes her character, knowing their off-screen relationship as romantic partners? The character of Mother is entirely subservient, she tries to have a normal marriage as the traditional mother and wife, but then she’s put through the ringer, showing something stronger and more desirable to both Aronofsky, the director, and Him, the character.

In writing about the ending (and the beginning, which I can get into in the second half), Lawrence and Aronofsky's real-life romantic relationship is difficult to put out of one's mind. mother! feels like a statement from both of them. Bardem’s Him is an artist interested in creating, at whatever the cost; Lawrence’s Mother is a young woman trying to maneuver her way through situations that constantly test and judge her as a modern woman. The chaos that reigns in the end makes things clear (at least one or two overarching themes are clear) and the on-the-nose-ness of it all makes for a film that packs a punch but leaves little to say in retrospect. It’s a puzzle that’s easy to solve with an answer that’s not too interesting.  

That’s not to say what’s on the screen is uninteresting. mother! is filled with moments that will confound and enrage. Once things get rolling in the final act, there are plenty of times the film went to places you wouldn’t normally see in a standard wide-released, R-rated horror film. Not necessarily daring, more inflammatory, these moments—heightened by Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and the sound design—make for an experience worth diving into for the sake of the shock horror. It’s a journey through Aronofsky’s mind, for better and worse, one that is not as deep as his previous work, but as inherently visceral as something like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.  

Now, we have to talk about the opening and closing shots in mother!...


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I don’t have confirmation, but just reading through some reactions online it’s pretty safe to say that Rachel Weisz makes a cameo appearance in the opening moments of mother!.

If you don’t already know, mother!’s writer-director Darren Aronofsky was married to Weisz; they have a child together and by all accounts they’re on good terms after their divorce in 2010. I don’t tend to dig into a filmmaker’s personal life while writing about film, but when the themes are so strongly connected to a filmmaker's life, it’s hard not to do.

Aronofsky is dealing with his divorce in mother!. He begins the film with Weisz (or a Weisz-like figure) engulfed in flame, staring right at the camera with a single tear rolling down her face. We then see Bardem place a magical stone in its stand, which regenerates his burnt down house and summons Lawrence’s Mother character. Then, at the end of the film, the house burns down thanks to Mother, and we see Lawrence in the same flame we saw Weisz in. We then see Bardem repeat the same ritual as before and this time a new partner for Him is created, which means the cycle will happen all over again.

This ending makes Lawrence's character a thing. Him says as much in the film when he pulls Mother's heart out of her chest. Him is Aronofsky’s proxy—an artist struggling with how to balance his creativity and his relationship with his wife and child. It can be read that Him has sold his soul in order to create art (poems are really popular in this world, I guess) and gain fame, which in turn eats away at his marriage. Him is essentially feeding off the love given to him by Mother and takes that love (symbolized as the crystal) to restart the process again. 

Heavy-handed is putting it lightly; mother! verges on the feature-length airing out of dirty laundry, with Aronofsky putting his ex-wife and current romantic partner at the forefront. It’s not entirely clear how involved the couple was while filming the movie; Aronofsky wrote this script before getting into a relationship with the actress. He made a movie that essentially pardons him and encourages him at the same time; people die for the sake of art, yet what is Him's destiny? He is able to rebuild his home again with another chance to create with another beautiful woman by his side. Perhaps without expanding out and looking at the director's personal life, one could see it as a statement against creepy older successful men taking on and using younger women as partners. But when you're living that life (just going out with her, I am not asserting he's sucking her lifeforce) you can't really make a stand against it.    

That’s not to say Lawrence didn’t influence the making of the film, because it’s not only a take on how Aronofsky sees himself as an artist, husband/ex-husband, and a father, it’s a view at how Lawrence herself as a celebrity. It's easy to see why Lawrence was drawn to mother!. In the film’s apocalyptic final act, the couple's country house is overrun with hundreds of people. These are strangers to Mother and fans of Him and his writing. The house, in turn, becomes a symbol of privacy. Home invasions are gossip columns; a wake that becomes a house party is a metaphor for the media’s rapturous obsession with celebrity.

Things come to a head in the film’s most disturbing moment. Once Mother gives birth to her and Him’s child, Him is so obsessed with celebrity that he wants to show the newborn to the rapturous crowd outside their door. Up to that point, the crowd in the house has boiled to murderous paparazzi levels, flashbulbs blazing, before becoming a war zone. The celebrity vs. media theme continues as we see Mother being so protective of her and her baby’s privacy. She can’t keep her guard up forever and, once she dozes off, Him takes the child and hands it over to his adoring crowd. One aspect I actually appreciate about the film is how it cuts through time (the rapid decline of ‘society’ in the house is the film’s most interesting aspect)—not soon after the baby is lovingly carried through the crowd do things take a supremely dark turn. I won’t forget the distinct snap of that baby’s neck for awhile; it’s a moment of pure horror and Lawrence’s cries of disbelief and rage cut deep. But, hey, on top of that, in order to really sell how figuratively carnivorous this crowd is, they literally feast on the baby’s flesh.

Mother is pure fury as she fights back against the crowd, but the crowd fights back. Lawrence has had her struggles with the media and the public since her meteoric rise a few years ago. From criticisms over her off-the-cuff remarks to hackers violating her privacy, she’s taking on those forces as she jams shattered glass into the sternums of these baby-eaters. They don’t take this lightly and brutally beat her while shouting the types of obscenities you’d find on a Jennifer Lawrence Reddit page. It’s a statement that’s for sure and one that is worth making, but the way it’s handled in the film feels way too forced and easy. Him's response to all this sells it, too—"Let's forgive them," he says to a bewildered Mother.   

There’s a rich complexity to Aronofsky’s previous work. The Fountain says so much about love and dealing with the inevitability of death while also being an imaginative sci-fi adventure. Black Swan is a mind trip dealing with the pursuit of creative perfection that melds reality with a nightmarish dreamscape. mother! attempts to be as subversive and thought-provoking as Aronofsky's previous work, but it all feels like a shallow vanity project for its lead actress and writer-director. It’s not a statement I wouldn’t normally attach to a film that has baby-eating as its climactic peak, but when stepping away it's difficult not to see that the film was more therapeutic for the people behind the scene than fulfilling for its audience.

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