, , , , , , ,
121 min.
Release Date

Darren Aronofsky’s seventh film opens with a title card that reads just “mother” in lowercase before adding an exclamation point, which arrives with the sound of a chime no less. In a film overcome by its allegorical intentions, the director of such overt psychodramas as Black Swan (2010), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and Pi (1998) feels that an exclamation point provides inadequate emphasis; only an exclamation point and a chime sufficiently capture the film’s verboseness. How true. The title of mother! suggests the level of histrionic symbolism on which the director operates, always going a level or so too far into the parable, but not far enough into his characters and their emotions. Aronofsky’s script functions solely to serve his metaphoric aims, providing—like his last film Noah (2014)—another environmentalist commentary through characters and a narrative that have no living, breathing dimension. Their identities and trajectories have been shaped by the demands of the central, clumsy, and overreaching metaphor.

The conceit begins with the first frame, before the silly titles, when a singed face appears onscreen for a moment before being engulfed in flames. We’re soon introduced to a benevolent poet (unnamed, as each of the film’s characters are) played by Javier Bardem, who lives in a secluded country house along with his notably younger wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Burdened by his apparent and absurd rockstar-poet status, he nonetheless suffers from writer’s block, while she serves as an apologetic and accommodating wife that tries to rebuild their house after an allusive disaster. One night, a stranger (Ed Harris) knocks on the door, and the poet curiously welcomes him to stay, despite the wife’s obvious reservations about an unknown houseguest. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) joins them the next day, followed by their sons, and a series of other followers—all of whom the poet welcomes, despite his wife’s objections, because they’re fans of his. As the house that she has toiled so desperately to renovate is left in shambles, and she hurriedly rushes around the house and plays host to the guests, the disorienting situation becomes increasingly unbelievable.

Although it might be tempting to describe mother! as a tale of domestic encroachment (like Madhouse from 1990, except unfunny) or a film about the process of artistic creation, its symbolism replaces any sense of story logic, making the metaphoric intent glaring. After all, it takes just fifteen minutes or so of screentime before their marriage stops feeling like a marriage and transitions into a relationship that is about something. Natural characterizations are replaced with allegorical intent. Without much stretch of the imagination, it becomes evident that Lawrence is playing Mother Nature, while Bardem plays a divine figure willing to sacrifice His most beloved creation (and she is a creation) to narcissistically indulge a string of devoted, irresponsible, and ultimately ravenous followers. The houseguests become stand-ins for Christians, who abuse their environment because they want to celebrate God, but also selfishly want a piece of God’s beauty—Nature—for themselves. Several characters represent Biblical icons, from a timeworn Adam and Eve to the bickering Cain and Abel (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson). The metaphoric intent descends into further transparency when mother! plunges into feverish riots, cannibalism, murder, and delusional cultism.

Meanwhile, the viewer is preoccupied with deciphering the film, as opposed to any substantive emotional involvement. Granted, it’s frustrating to watch as Lawrence’s character deliriously tries to keep visitors from sitting on a newly installed sink that hasn’t been properly supported, keep unwanted guests from snooping around the house, or prevent anyone from touching her husband’s mysterious rock—seemingly the source of all creativity and life. Anyone who has had reckless visitors can empathize. Aronofsky’s film, on the scum-level surface, creates a tightly-wound chamber drama of sorts, something reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s tense and surreal Apartment Trilogy. The trouble is, the situation itself isn’t enough for Aronofsky. Every visitor is meant to represent another real-world faction and its relationship with Nature—be it followers who interpret God’s message for themselves or well-meaning-but-crude environmentalists, all of them following their own self-interest and ignoring Mother Nature’s pleas to respect her house. Outside of this surreal and transparent symbolism for the characters and story, nothing about the film makes much sense or earns our sympathy on an essential emotional level.

Sadly, mother! is arguably Aronofsky’s best-directed film yet; it’s the script that’s the problem. Just as he borrowed from Repulsion (1965) to inform Black Swan, he draws from another Polanski masterwork, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), by evoking the same claustrophobic space and sinister domesticity. There isn’t a better filmmaker to steal from for this type of material. Aronofsky’s stylistic command provides a clear layout of the house within the first minutes, and the absence of a musical score allows every creak in the floorboards or echo in the house its due. The film’s sound design is wonderful, punctuated by moments in which Lawrence unleashes her piercing screams later in the film (allegedly resulting in her torn diaphragm). Aronofsky’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s extended shots follow Lawrence around the confined interiors with tight close-ups that track her face in frantic interactions with houseguests from Hell. The visual palette is appropriately earthy and grainy, leaving the film to look like a 1970s production, albeit infused with occasional CGI when Lawrence touches the house’s walls and senses its dying heart in a crude, digitally created visual that might be unintentionally funny if it wasn’t so self-important.

To be sure, Aronofsky has no time for subtlety, and his nightmarish allegory is less clever than he imagines. Regardless of how well similar themes could have supplied a less glaring filmmaker, the ideas behind the film prove fascinating. It’s a not a film any audience will soon forget. The problem with mother! is not the performances, direction, or even the message (its aim is true); the problem is the hyperbolic approach that marks every aspect of the storytelling and renders the experience hollow. The film offers a worthy critique of humankind’s self-destructive obsession with God over the more substantial reality of Nature, delivered through powerful performances by Lawrence and Bardem (as well as the supporting roles by Harris, Pfeiffer, the Gleesons, and even Kristen Wiig). Aronofsky’s craftsmanship and ability to evoke a gut-punch reaction is undeniable, but his self-conscious methods fail to bring a satisfying or emotional experience by the bloody and apocalyptic finale.

  • Jeremy Carrier

    this was so trash lmao

    • Brian Eggert

      Hi Jeremy. Can you elaborate about why you thought the film was “trash”?

      • Jeremy Carrier

        For one, just looking at the film hurts my eye. Incredibly ugly use of color, composition, lighting. Its so explicitly allegorical about…something, or other, to the point that it really doesn’t even “matter” what’s denotatively happening in the film. Every plot beat, and all the character work being done by the actors feels quite useless. None of them are “real”, even in the fictional sense this is all a movie, so none of it ever seems to stick. It does a lot of circular talking about philosophy, but has no philosophy backbone to stick to.

        Its only good at being haphazardly confusing, in the way an ambitious but limitedly talented film freshman attempting an avant-garde art movie can be a confusing mood piece.

  • ninestories

    Glad to hear some honest feedback. Disappointed “Aronofsky’s best-directed film” was wasted on such an eye-rolling story.

  • Justin Couron

    >After all, it takes just fifteen minutes or so of screentime before their marriage stops feeling like a marriage and transitions into a relationship that is about something. Natural characterizations are replaced with allegorical inten

    I’m tired of seeing this kind of critique of this film. This isn’t a critique of the film in any way. This film at no point is trying to be an in depth character study, or is about “natural characterizations” or whatever that means in the context of a film that has no concern whatsoever for such conceits. It’s like getting mad at Ordinary People for lacking in enough archetypes or allegorical surrealism. Its critiquing a movie for something it was never going for or never was in favor of a completely different type of film and narrative. Its like critiquing a fable for having to much of a message at the end, or being to black and white. Well yes, its a fable? Its not a character study but an examination of some aspect of our ethics , archetypes standing in for real people.

    It would be like getting mad at Salvador Dali for not adding enough depth of shadow to objects in his surrealist paintings. Its trying to impose narrative formalism of the Joseph Campbell type onto the surrealist allegory of an artist’s view on the bible. Its a silly criticism to make.

    • Brian Eggert

      I am not saying the film was trying to be a character study, or even that its characters must be realistic. Characters should be relatable, however, in order to generate a meaningful emotional response, even in a fable. Most fables include some level of emotional engagement alongside their message. But because the behavior of the characters in mother! served more of a metaphorical purpose than an empathetic or emotionally accessible one, the experience seemed overly didactic to me.

      Aronofsky’s heightened parabolic intent overwhelmed and ultimately crippled the emotional potential for me, leaving mother! to feel like a purely intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. But art is lifeless without emotion. From Aristotle to Collingwood, aestheticians would argue that art is an expression of emotion. The emotions in mother! were, for me, inaccessible because the characters were unrelatable, and as a result, the film didn’t work. Perhaps you feel otherwise, and if so I’m glad it worked for you.

  • Richard Dwayne Carlson

    For me, the emotional pull came through what I saw as familiar and relatable relationship dynamics: that being the narcissistic husband and the neglected, condescended to, and taken-for-granted wife. For a moment I thought it might have been a feminist metaphor; with shades of Ibsen’s “the doll house”. This along with my relating to the idea of a self-obsessed artist not being able to love another person other than objectively made it more accessible to me.

    • Brian Eggert

      That makes sense. “A Doll’s House” is great comparison; however, I think the characters in Ibsen’s play behave in a way that makes sense, even while being scandalous, that their behaviors cannot be questioned. I certainly related to the characters in “mother!” for much of the opening. The first fifteen minutes or so were quite effective. Afterward, it began to feel as though Lawrence’s doormat character wasn’t behaving in a way that was relatable for me; her character was behaving according to the demands of the screenplay. Perhaps it’s because she’s usually playing strong women and here she’s walked over for much of the film. Obviously, she didn’t sell me on her performance as a meek character, unlike, say, Mia Farrow, who could play both strong and meek.

      What did you make of the last third of the film, then, when things start to become so blatantly metaphoric and arch? Did the film lose you or were you able to stay with it because of the prior connections you had made?

      • Richard Dwayne Carlson

        When she became pregnant the emotional pull became stronger for me, perhaps because Im at a similar stage in life of contemplating children and all the emotional baggage that idea brings. Although many directors have used babies in peril for cheap effect and this may not be an exception, i think that only works because of our innate human desire to protect them. This, coupled with the intensity of the direction–including some shocking imagery and that amazing sound design–kept me hooked. And it all worked to strengthen this central metaphor of the the destructive narcissism of god, which I think is a valid indictment of the biblical character I haven’t seen elucidated in such a visceral way.

        • Brian Eggert

          That’s a good point. I felt for the baby, too; that was one of the more effective elements of the latter part of the film, along with the beating. Those are unavoidable gut reactions, I think. But at the same time, the baby was such a device and again, a metaphor, that the emotional connection never overrode the symbolism overall. I agreed with and really like the message of the film, and its comments about god and Nature, but the way he (in my opinion) failed to blend story and allegory into a cohesive whole is where it faltered.

          That being said, I’m glad it exists, because it was one of the more discussion-worthy films in recent memory.

Recent Articles

  1. The Definitives: Singin' in the Rain
  2. Re(focused)views: The Room
  3. The Definitives: The Ice Storm
  4. Re(focused)views: Cat People
  5. The Definitives: The Curse of the Cat People
  6. The Definitives: Cat People
  7. Memory Lane: Flatliners
  8. The Definitives: The Big Heat
  9. The Definitives: Sansho the Bailiff
  10. The Definitives: Ugetsu
  11. The Definitives: They Live
  12. Re(focused)views: The Beguiled
  13. Re(focused)views: Tabloid