Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domnhall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
There’s something fantastic about walking into a film you know next to nothing about.
We live in the age of the teaser (not forgetting the initial teaser for the teaser); the trailer showing all the best moments; the barrage of clips and TV spots; the cast and crew talking up every detail in pre-release press interviews… and to be able to take a chance on a movie (an admittedly confident chance here, given the people involved) and go in blind, is an increasingly rare and special thing.
Darren Aronofsky’s newest film absolutely merits this approach.
It is at once many things – paranoid thriller, study of an abusive relationship and yes, as the trailers would have you believe, a horror movie – and to talk about its ultimate concerns without spoiling anything is a difficult task.
Suffice to say, once mother! shows its hand and reveals what it’s ‘about’ early on, it steadily reveals itself to be a genuinely ballsy, personal, madcap labour of passion; a delirious, blackly comic satire which will be sure to utterly horrify some as much as it will thrill others.
Our point of identification is Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed mother of the title (none of the characters actually have names, referred to in the credits with archetypal titles as ‘Him’, ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’). She is timid and house-proud, fixing up the childhood house of her much older husband (Bardem), which burned down an unspecified amount of time ago. Bardem’s character is a poet who has been struggling with writer’s block. He is somewhat cold to his almost subservient wife, and prone to moments of arrogance and self-pity.
Ed Harris shows up claiming to have thought the house was a bed and breakfast, and is welcomed in by Bardem with a strange eagerness and friendliness. Pretty soon the man’s wife (Pfeiffer) appears, followed by their two sons. The house quickly begins to fill up with fanatical fans of Bardem’s poetry who just won’t leave, and act increasingly rudely towards Lawrence’s put-upon housewife. She slowly begins to worry that she is losing her mind as her husband’s rabid fans keep him increasingly distant from her, while inspiring his desire to create poetry again – and other things.
One of Aronofsky’s main strengths is his ability to create an atmosphere of seething tension – think back to the building paranoia of Black Swan, or basically all of Requiem for a Dream – with mother! he has turned these instincts up to eleven; we stay with Lawrence throughout the film, seeing her slow disintegration as she is hit with insult after insult as she simply tries to, in her own words, create a “paradise” to live in. Unfortunately her character doesn’t have much agency or personality of her own, which could be the whole point depending on how far one reads into the film’s messages, although it still slightly undercuts any identification with her beyond the visceral; she is there to project, more than anything, although to say more there would be to drift into spoiler territory.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is tight and claustrophobic, drawing us into every nook and cranny of the huge, increasingly threatening house as it begins to fall apart with abuse, and often filling the frame with tight close ups of the mounting horror on Lawrence’s face.
Whatever else has been said about mother! (and it’s already inspired some extreme division), it is undeniably one of the strangest, most personal films made by a major studio in quite some time.
Aronofsky is clearly working through some stuff with this film, and the various thematic and parabolic elements he’s woven into his dream-logic narrative are bound to be confounding to some, and downright offensive to others.
Just go in blind.