Darren Aronofsky’s newest feature mother! has, and will continue to divide audiences. Part of me can see why people might be frustrated with the film, as marketing and trailers really pushed the film as some sort of home invasion or cult story — stylistic, but familiar. I think those sort of expectations easily sour audience’s reactions, regardless of the quality of the film on its own. The expectation of a monster, or something more tangible in It Comes at Night (another horror film released this year) by way of the trailers had the same effect on me.
However, when it came to mother! I went in completely blind, but with Darren Aronofsky’s flair in 2014’s Black Swan still fresh in my memory. I think that helped. To those considering seeing this film: purge all expectations from the trailer from your mind. You won’t find a tight narrative, or anything at all typical about this film. You’ll find an experience, questions, and an example of why film as an artistic medium should be valued.
Without giving anything away, both for your enjoyment and because of how hard it would be to try to explain, the story deals with Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence’s relationship with each other, their home, and the people outside it. There are many lenses through which you can view this film, and every new interpretation I hear adds to the richness. There are allegories from the Bible, the selfish relationship of artist and muse, male and female roles, and the tensions between the private and public. I left the theatre thinking a lot about how in today’s age, we rely a lot on external validation, and the pursuit of an Instagram-worthy relationship, natural disasters, and why I have a weird fear of frogs. I think every viewpoint and fresh set of eyes will draw something worthwhile from mother!, and perhaps with more coherence than even the director and writer could have intended. There is much more substance to this than in the usual works that often draw the praise of pretentious arts majors like myself. I usually hate everything, but I was never able to escape the film’s uneasiness long enough to really gripe on the pacing or acting choices.
It wasn’t just the “story” itself that left me shook, but the talent behind the camera, and the effectiveness of the meat and potatoes of the filmmaking. I felt anxious and stressed as soon as the film started, with the close shots of Jennifer Lawrence making her way through the house inducing a feeling of claustrophobia. The masses of bodies, visual tremors, and noise throughout the film further intensify that feeling — leaving the audience incredibly uncomfortable.
There is a nightmare-like aspect to the film itself, not in the abruptly shocking way of something like IT, but in the overwhelming feeling of dread during a dream when you are running towards a door that just gets further and further away, to when the only thing between you and the vastness of space is rice paper. The last act of the film becomes increasingly frantic and surreal, and will have your heart racing. Some have criticized iconography and imagery in the film being heavy handed, but I quite enjoyed many of those last scenes and images. It reminded me a lot of the sequence into Bexhill from Children of Men that evoked the torture images from Abu Ghraib. While on the nose, they were an effective gut punch that said a lot in just a few frames. A bit of a spoiler, but I will warn that there is a sequence involving violence against an infant and child that might not be suitable for some, and left many in the theatre I was in shocked.
I honestly think the mood and consensus on this film will shift, and that we will regard this as an achievement of artistic vision. There are many moments in this film that I look back and think could only have been achieved in this medium. There is no poetry, no novel, no painting that could have conjured some of those moments and frames. I think the standard for films of this type has been raised; metaphors, brooding, and horizon shots aren’t enough anymore. You have to take risks.