Darren Aronofsky (director and writer), Matthew Libatique (cinematographer), Andrew Weisblum (editor)
Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
September 5, 2017 (Venice), September 15, 2017 (USA)
There are three ideas in mother! and they’re all garage sale specials, ground so well trod by Hollywood that the film’s last minute twist is both guessable early on and not worth guessing at all. The film’s dream logic renders the twist, the film’s essential plot points, and even its core themes curiously weightless, carried along by Jennifer Lawrence in gauzy white fabric and baby-voice vulnerability.
mother! is a thriller about a couple — Mother and Him — living in an isolated rural somewhere. She labours over the piece-by-piece reconstruction of his wreck of a house. He frets about his poetic uselessness; fails to write; and looms and emotionally terrorizes Mother with temper tantrums, all while allowing strangers to move in and disrespect her. This is, naturally, all for “his art.” He needs new stories, new life, new newness in order to get the work flowing again. She wants only to love him, rebuild his home into a paradise for them alone, and have his baby. The threat to her paradise manifests in the breakdown of her body, her space, and her self. She hears things (or does she!?). She feels things (or does she!?). And the house displays all the classic Amityville symptoms like secret rooms, mysterious blood, and a generally uncertain spacetime.
Aronofsky brings to bear jump scares, mood lighting, and all the implied terror of a creaky old house filled with unwanted guests, but as a thriller mother! is out of step. Rather than tension escalating alongside emotional and physical violence, it oscillates, wavering uncertainly between jokes, psychological horror, and weird-for-weird samples of Kubrick and Hitchcock. All of this happening on the bedrock of Jennifer Lawrence, the film’s unnamed lead, kept in an unceasing state of humiliation and violation, culminating in a third act sexual assault that does triple duty: the starlet abused by the director for our pleasure; JLaw herself torn apart in the press over hacked nudes; something something holy women torn down as whores.
By this point the film switches gears, from thriller entirely to an extended Requiem not-quite-dream sequence, wherein any rules the film previously set down about space and time are thrown out the window. A series of increasingly bad things happen to our woman in white, beginning with a pregnancy and her husband finally writing again. While she has devoted herself to him and supported his work, the work having an existence outside of them and being read by others is threatening to her. “I just want to be alone with you,” she wails at one point, hanging on to her man as he flits from press to fan, seeking adulation.
It’s in this part of the film that mother!‘s three big ideas get a full airing (spoiler warning): god sucks, god the creator (also sucks), and god the creator (who sucks) grinding up all the love and life’s blood of women to make one cubic zirconium chintzy art piece for we the adoring-destroying masses. That this is the movie that came out of a set where Lawrence’s boyfriend Aronofsky screamed at her regularly, where she dislocated a rib, and where she suffered panic attacks because of the “intense emotion” of the scenes, makes all of this especially tiresome.
I spent much of mother! cackling. There are jokes in the film and they do land, but the serious parts, the parts meant to be scary, sincere, or profound are instead fatuous. The sum of mother! is a stew of a very basic thriller stretched out with surrealism and freshman philosophy. Aronofsky said at a press junket that “the movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.” After leaving my screening of the film three people texted me asking if the twist was really what it’s rumoured to be. My response to them was that the twist is irrelevant. mother! is not a film that will benefit from trying to make sense of its plot, because its sense is all in the images and ideas that hazily drift through the film’s first act, and machine gun through the third act’s unsubtle collage.
The trouble is that the film isn’t a psychological freakout. To the extent that it’s a thriller, it is entirely predictable in those respects. To the extent that it’s whoa-whoa-you-guys faded philosophy, it’s entirely predictable in those respects too. It’s most controversial scenes were done better elsewhere and its best visuals are less than memorable. The clearest thing that comes across in mother! is that Darren Aronofsky wishes he were Stanley Kubrick… but he’s just not.