Prepare yourself for a myriad of think pieces because Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (please note the lower case and the exclamation mark) is upon us. If you have seen the trailer, the clips or the reviews, you may think that you have a sense of what the film is about, but as with most Aronofsky films, this is one best experienced for yourself. I will say that the word on the street in Toronto is single minded: this is a very divisive film. It is not for everyone…and that’s probably why folks should check it out.
Let’s backtrack: mother! tells the story of a married couple living in a secluded home in the middle of a clearing in the woods. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) has been renovating the house while Him (Javier Bardem), a renown poet, works to overcome his writer’s block. One day Man (Ed Harris) knocks on the door and, after learning the identity of Him, Man ingratiates himself into spending the night in the guest room. The next morning Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives and, in due course, their sons Younger and Older (real life brothers, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) do, too. And they refuse to leave. And others continue to arrive.
Aronofsky spins a dizzying web with both his screenplay and his direction. Mother is without a doubt the film’s protagonist, so the film’s insanity is all presented from her point of view. As a result, she becomes the mouthpiece for all of the audiences’ reactions, which frequently amounts to “WTF is going on?!” Literally every other character in the film – none of whom have proper names – refuses to act like a sane, normal person, including Him, who indulges the whims and flattery of the strangers without question or discussion with his much younger wife. This regularly leaves Mother in a subservient, reactionary position; she answers the door, prepares food, cleans up messes, and roams the halls of the gorgeous home after and in search of others.
To say that things only get weirder with the appearance of each subsequent new person is an understatement of enormous proportion. mother! reminded me of the counter-cinema filmmaking style of Jean-Luc Goddard, who regularly introduced the most bizarre events in his films to shock, confuse and break down the fourth wall in order to remind his audience that they are watching a film. mother! reminded me of one of Goddard’s most infamous sequences: a single take dolly of a traffic jam that includes horrific violence.
While removing the audience from the film is not exactly Aronofsky’s intention, the film is without a doubt a self-reflexive meditation of the role of the artist as creator, inspiration and muse and the ritualistic worship of celebrity above reason and sanity. There’s an inherent circularity in mother! that speaks to the creative process and it’s baked into the production not only at the narrative level (the film opens with a fiery rebirth), but also Aronofsky’s staging of the action, which finds Mother running in endless circles around the house amidst the action. It’s also difficult not to read into Lawrence’s casting (she’s Aronofsky’s girlfriend and current muse) in the way that he keeps his camera trained on her face throughout the film; in this way her every panicked reaction and injury is a canvas which reflects the escalating Bacchanal chaos and violence occurring within the house’s walls.
The two-hour runtime will challenge mainstream cinemagoers, as well the virtually non-stop frenzied nature of the action. Aronofsky rightfully breaks the worst of it into two separate extended sequences – one involving Harris, Pfeiffer and their family conflict; the other six months later just as the dust has settled. Both, but especially the latter, will test patrons’ capacity for chaos and confusion, especially if they are not fully on board with the madness that Aronofsky is selling. It should be noted that mother! isn’t particularly scary, though sound is frequently used to great effect to create a sense of unease. This complements Aronofsky’s shaky handheld shooting approach and closer framing to keep the audience unaware of what is happening until Mother stumbles upon it throughout the film.
mother! is unequivocally not a film for everyone and it will be incredibly divisive when it is released on Sept 15. I fully expect that it will wind up on many end of year lists in both the Best and Worst categories. Personally, I found it a bold, fascinating, and slightly pretentious film, which places it well ahead of safe, but bland films. I firmly believe that while many will be turned away by the nature of reviews and word of mouth, this is absolutely a film that audiences should see and experience for themselves. For this reason, I strongly recommend mother!