Darren Aronofsky returns to us with mother! a visceral, haunting film presented in the director’s trademark, singular vision. This film is going to be divisive and was meant to be so. It is disorienting, bizarre, and thoroughly upsetting. However, it is also a work of staggering complexity, nuanced and layered. The qualifier however is if you understand the subtext and commentary that is taking place. In no way am I trying to judge you or your intelligence if you do not pick up on the inspiration for the story that Aronofsky is attempting to tell here; that being said, I believe the film is a much richer experience if you do. So for the less discerning audience members, seeking out even the barest hint of the subtext might be beneficial to your understanding of the finished product, which I wholeheartedly adored.
The overlying premise of mother! is this: the young second wife of a famous poet works to complete their paradisiacal country home while her husband struggles to write a follow-up to his world renowned debut. In the beginning, their relationship and their house are as one: pristine, unblemished, perfect. It is as if they live in a space outside of time, made only for them.
Then an unwelcome stranger shows up: a man lost in the wilderness. Soon, his wife follows and despite the young woman’s protests, her husband allows them to stay in their house. Slowly, the cracks in their relationship begin to reveal themselves, highlighting the skewed power dynamic between them. Though the husband is clearly fond of her, he is often dismissive and selfish, thinking only of his unfinished work rather than considering his wife’s happiness. This is exacerbated by the revelation that the strange couple are actually ardent fans of the husband’s writing and he, despite all his talk about loving his wife, yearns for adoration above all else. The young woman and the guests begin to war for the husband’s attention, even as strange events start occurring in the house, including bleeding floorboards, the discovery of a secret doorway, and the destruction of an indefinable object.
Then more people come. The young woman is staggered by their careless disrespect of her home and, more importantly, each other. Their humanity starts to give way to blind fanaticism and the young woman’s life devolves into a funhouse of horrors as she must weather this escalating home invasion while attempting to hold onto her husband, whose need for adoration ends with awful, deadly consequences.
mother! is a journey of a film, a primal, thought-provoking experience that most certainly benefits from going in as cold as possible (unless you’re worried about missing the subtext as mentioned before). It’s a struggle even writing about it in such oblique terms because I have so much to say about it and so much I want to discuss with people who’ve seen it. The characters, for example, are nameless, granted broad titles that speak to their underlying narrative purpose. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the young wife is simply called “mother.” Javier Bardem, who plays her husband, is “Him.” That’s it. And though those titles may seem pretentious, they’re not. Nothing in the film is present without purpose. There are no needless artistic flourishes. This is a deftly crafted narrative machine designed by Aronofsky with the intent to cause disruption, then conversation.
The performances are the beating heart of this film and both leads (and the extended cast) kill it. Lawrence is wonderful here, crafting a character that is at once resilient, yet frustratingly passive (at least at the onset). She is confused and often hurt by her husband’s actions, but she seeks to continue on, to persevere in hopes of there being something better in the future. Lawrence gives her most calculated performance since The Silver Linings Playbook, effortlessly conveying a broad range of quickly cycling emotions, from confusion, to outrage, to horror. She is our window into the film and succeeds in serving as a vessel for the audience, taking us on this journey into madness, making us feel the paranoia, claustrophobia, and loneliness of her character in every moment, no matter how quiet or how loud.
Bardem, on the other hand, is a pleasing, purposeful cipher. He is at once loving and distant; amenable, but also capable of wrath. He clearly loves his wife, but he loves the feeling of being loved more. One gets the sense that everything that occurs, in his mind, must come back to him and how he feels. When remarking upon an awful incident that happens early in the film, he can only speak to how he was involved. When talking to the strange couple about whether or not he and his wife want children, he speaks for both of them. It’s a demanding role and Bardem, as he is wont to do, delivers, crafting a character whose arc is meaningful and unsurprising in the context of the commentary that Aronofsky is seeking to provide.
From a stylistic standpoint, mother! is the latest in a slew of movies that love handheld close-ups. Like Black Swan before it, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique spend the majority of the film with the camera less than two feet from Lawrence, swimming around her as she navigates her labyrinthine house. The technique makes each shot feel visceral and dynamic, lending added weight to her increasingly distressed emotional state as her world continues to shrink. This, paired with the increasingly nightmarish imagery and lack of a traditional score, make mother! an unforgettable sensory experience.
A final word on mother! This film is meant to upset you; it’s also meant to make you think and generate discussion. Though still a meaningful experience without the subtext, I feel like it is necessary to fully appreciate the amount of care and detail that went into crafting this experience. Aronofsky, as he always does, has something to say and does so with style and purpose. This is more than just a drama. It is an absurdist parable with a clear, necessary message. When placed beside the rest of his filmography, I would say this is more a companion to Noah and The Fountain than anything else. It plays with narrative structures and expectations, while offering layered, challenging commentary on a well-trodden subject. If you get the subtext, the moment that everything clicks for you is, in a word, divine.
A staggering film. It is easily one of my favorites this year so far. See it.