It is hard to image a movie that will be more controversial and divisive than mother!, the newest film from writer/director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah). The conversations that it inspires will be something to behold, if only because everyone will most likely agree on the objective characteristics of the film while violently clashing with regards to the efficacy and purpose behind them. Is the film frantic, blunt, and almost comically drunk off of its own convictions? Yes. Is Jennifer Lawrence operating at a level of artistry and earnestness that forces one to create new accolades with which to describe her? Yes. Does the film work? Is it good? Never has the term “your mileage may vary” been deployed more honestly while still straining to do justice to just how personal the reactions to this work will be. You may hate this film with a degree of vitriol that shocks you. I loved it.
To describe the story of mother! is to begin to wrestle with the line between spoiler and necessary thematic discussion. The basic plot hook of this film is as follows – a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her poet husband (Javier Bardem) live in a large, crumbling Victorian house in the middle of the country. As he struggles to create, she sets herself to slowly rehabilitating the house room by room, until the day that a stranger (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive at their door and throw their whole world into chaos. To describe the escalation of incident that drives the narrative is to rob a viewer of some of mother!‘s most delicious and absurd pleasures. Suffice to say, on a literal and allegorical level, what follows is a deep dive into madness, loss, and ecstatic experience.
On a literal level, mother! plays as a kind of nightmare, and as such it lives and breathes at the pleasure of that kind of unconscious dream logic. What is most entrancing about what occurs is how immediately wrong everything feels. There is no sense of reality or humanity to anything that occurs outside of the performance of Lawrence, who creates a character of layered, deeply-felt pain, confusion, and heartbreaking purpose. She is more than just the glue that holds the story together, or the fulcrum upon which the balance of comedy and horror rests – she is gravity. She is the force by which all of this becomes possible. Through her wide eyes she expresses thoughts and feelings that a great actress could not properly deliver through pages of dialogue. The timbre of her speech, and the way in which her voice raises, falls, cracks, and finds itself acts as a vocal soundtrack in a movie that otherwise has no score.
This lack of score is one of the greatest assets that mother! has, and is a study in the power of absence. Coming one weekend after It (by director Andy Muschietti), which sought to bludgeon and overpower its audience into fear or anxiety via a cacophonous musical assault, mother! feels like a balm and a refutation to the recent trend of noise being prerequisite to terror. The sound design of this film is one of its great assets, with the ancient, airy house acting as both amplifier and muffler to the conversations and actions of those inside. Footsteps resound like drumbeats, floorboards creak, and voices rise and fall, ebb and flow. It gives one the sensation of being both alone and encroached upon. The retreating footfalls of a departing guest hammer a tattoo that ensures that out of sight does not allow for them to be out of mind.
Without giving away too much, mother! makes it clear that all of Darren Aronofsky’s obsessions remain firmly in place. Madness, sacrifice, the blind faith the comes from hope or love or religion, and the intoxication of finding something that gives you meaning – all of these themes find their due place and time in this film. Both Bardem and Lawrence are eerily and rapturously effective in their portrayal of people ruled by impulses they can barely understand, let alone control. Their commitment to the material, as well as the commitment of everyone else involved, makes every remarkable, indescribable turn of the story frighteningly relatable if not exactly believable.
This will be where the split between the apostates and the true believers comes from. As previously stated, mother! doesn’t make any feints toward realism or logic. It uses its dream-logic to deliver a story so rabidly, brazenly its own thing that it is hard to conceive of who Aronofsky could have had in mind as an audience. More than a story calculated to be entertainment or even intellectual lesson, this movie feels more like an enraptured screed. The ecstatic shout of a blood-drenched street preacher wielding a knife. mother! doesn’t seek to impart knowledge or inform, it only wants to make you understand, and it will do what it takes to drive that message home. The velocity of the film, the intimate camerawork (from Matthew Libatique), the raw performances, the harrowing death spiral of the final act – none of it is designed to make an audience comfortable, nor is it designed for subtlety.
Even more than this, the movie is a Rorschach test in blood. What the grander message of the film is will be something that is not so much up for debate as up for interpretation. It is to the Aronofsky’s credit that any of a number of readings could be solidly and passionately argued, and that these would all overlap in so intricately that each new reading will only enrich all others.
A movie pitched at such a volume of feeling and conviction will be met with either disdain, laughter, or admiration, among a score of other possible reactions. Time will tell – and it will be interesting to observe – what the political, religious, and gender lines these various reactions break down along. For now, I can say with complete honesty: you owe it to yourself to see mother!, if only so that you can observe one of the most bold, audacious, and baffling wide release studio films in recent memory, and subsequently have the strongest reaction, be it positive or negative, that you’re liable to have to a film this year.