Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig
MPAA Rating: (for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 9/15/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 14, 2017
With Mother!, writer/director Darren Aronofsky has made a work of expected, exemplary craft that, unexpectedly, serves as a piercing critique of religion. It's either that or a tragic story of the cost of fame on those who encircle it but are not a part of it. Of course, the film can be both. After all, is there a single person or entity more famous than God? On the other end, surely some celebrities, followed by adoring fans, must buy into their own hype. Do those who do see themselves as some brand of earthbound god?
It's difficult not to take a religious reading of the film, with its plot involving fratricide, the birth of a seemingly miraculous child, a terrible sacrifice, and an ending that suggests both the end and the beginning of the world. All of it is set within a house in the middle of a field. Everyone flocks to this house, because it's the home of a famous poet whose work has had profound influence on an assortment of people. The woman who's renovating the three-story house, though, would rather keep it and the poet to herself. She wants it to be a "paradise." That's her word. Another one she says is "apocalypse," as in, "I'll just go prepare for the Apocalypse."
It's also difficult to tell if the characters are aware of the possibility that their lives are part of some supernatural, divine game. The line about the apocalypse suggests that at least some of them are. One could take the line as a joke, but the unnamed woman, referred to in the credits as "Mother" and played by Jennifer Lawrence, is not the joking type.
She spends most of the film frustrated about the attention her poet husband, called only "the Poet" by other characters and played by Javier Bardem, receives from and give to complete strangers. The credits refer to the character as "Him," and he gives himself a name at one point: "I am who I am." There are two people who have famously said something akin to that, and it's probably safe to eliminate the possibility that the Bardem character is a cartoon sailor.
It begins simply and somewhat deceptively, with the Lawrence character doing work around the house, such as choosing paint for the walls of the living room. Before that, there's a mysterious prologue involving a woman's face engulfed in flames, a clear gemstone with traces of fiery orange coursing through it, and the ruins of the house being renewed to the structure's former quaintness. The woman awakens although her husband, the poet, is not in bed. She wanders the house looking for him, and when she finds him outside, she leans in to kiss him. He recoils a bit and excuses himself from her.
It's one of the few times they're together and alone, because that night, there's a knock on the door. A man (played by Ed Harris) believes the house is a bed and breakfast. The poet invites the stranger to spend the night, and soon enough, the house becomes occupied by the stranger's wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who only acknowledges Lawrence's character to passive-aggressively chastise her, and, later, the couple's two sons (played by Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), whose bickering over their father's will quickly becomes a knock-down, drag-out fight.
This is, of course, absurd, and it only becomes more surreal and darkly humorous as the story—if it's possible to call the screenplay's onslaught of situational symbolism and metaphor a story—progresses. One might think of Cain and Abel at a certain point, and perhaps the thought will be written off as a coincidence. After all, what does the Biblical first murder have to do with the creepy basement of a farm house, where the wall by the furnace has a strange, circular, and symbol-looking design on it? One might think the poet's label of himself—as "I am who I am"—sounds like God's revelation to Moses, but what does that have to do with that enigmatic gemstone in the poet's office?
This might sound a bit skeptical of the film's effectiveness and cohesion, and to a degree, it is. There's little denying that Aronofsky has pulled one on us. The film begins as a something akin to a horror movie—with its reliance on the dark, empty spaces and ambient sounds that fill the house (The sound design here, which keeps the house alive with the echoing sounds of foundational noise and chattering people, is particularly noteworthy)—before transforming into a parable about fame—both the adoration of celebrity and the cursed anonymity of the people behind the celebrity. Some of it seems simultaneously too pat (The way the film's beginning and ending reflect each other, meaning that certain parts of the story appear to exist simply to close the circle) and too impenetrable.
What we can gather, though, is that Aronofsky knows exactly what he's doing here. Whether we can get on his wavelength or not is, perhaps, a consequence of whether or not we're willing to buy into his overt metaphors for what they are, instead of what they might represent for some grand, unknowable thesis. In other words, it's best to watch Mother! as a microcosm of what religious zealotry can do to humanity, what fanatical adoration of celebrity can do to people, or what a destructive force fame can be on a relationship. It's possible that the film is about all of these things—or, for that matter, none of them. Whatever the film is, it's a strange, confounding, and unique experience, for sure.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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