Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is basically the Batman v Superman of psychological horror. It takes itself way too seriously and seems unaware that what it thinks is a deeply profound message has not only been done before, but done better. Like BvS, its female characters are the best it has going for it, but while the heights Mother! aims for are admirable, not even the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Kristen Wiig are enough to make this movie enjoyable, at least for the reasons it wants to be. Because once mother! really gets going in its completely bonkers second half, it is hilarious. Don’t try to make sense of it, just enjoy the ride.
Things start weirdly enough, with a woman in flames and a gorgeous, isolated house in the country seemingly being built from scratch, populated by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, a couple so beautiful they don’t even need names, identifying only as Mother and Him. Is the entirety of this film a flashback? Some sort of a rebirth after a disaster? You’ll get no straight answers here, just a delightful tidbit about it being a little bit of both.
Lawrence has built such a warm and loving home for her writer husband that he finds it stifling and is unable to work. But things really get going when a strange man (Ed Harris) appears on their doorstep, who is later followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Lawrence is disturbed by them and their behavior, while her husband is unruffled and even inspired by them. More follows, blood is spilled, and she and Bardem eventually reconcile. Her resulting pregnancy finally gives her husband the edge he needs, and his book is a smashing success. An ever-growing crowd gathers, and things quickly go completely off the rails as Mother! really embraces its own symbolism, with its Biblical and pop culture allusions (Rosemary’s Baby especially) coming to fruition in a nightmarish, dreamlike fashion.
This is where it will really lose a lot of people. Bardem quickly becomes a kind of cult leader with all the touches of modern celebrity, and their house becomes a literal war zone, complete with executions and riots. Aronofsky doesn’t seem to have ever had much interest in depicting humanity as anything other than creatures of obesessive, destructive habits, but why is there such disdain for it here? Especially in light of the fact that there are so many people actually living in these kinds of conditions. And news flash: many of them are in no way responsible for it. We are, due to our obliviousness, and our unquestioning acceptance of simple slogans.
Aronofsky’s views of art and its creators corresponds with his views on our species, but even in “Black Swan” there was a darkly exquisite glory in the film’s final act onstage. So why is there also such a repulsion here even for the act of creation itself? Where is the joy, where is the liberation so often found in making art, the kind of art that can indeed propel us to great heights, reveal new, uncomfortable truths, and even make us think, or just as remarkably, laugh? Instead, we get another portrait of how dour the world is, with all of it revolving around a misguided male genius who puts his work before everything, including his family. Yawn.
The reverence for nature is also misguided. Lawrence is the innocent, Earth Goddess figure in all of this, pleading with Bardem to give them privacy, give them peace, and to do what is best for their child. She is the heart of the film (eventually literally…ah, you’ll get it), throwing all of her charisma and considerable set of skills into this role. She and everyone else involved clearly believe in this film and the message it sends, and the fact that it falls short is no fault of hers, or Pfeiffer (who threatens to steal the show throughout) nor Wiig. They are the real stars who make Mother! almost watchable at times.
But nature is not an innocent maiden, nor a forgiving mother. She never was. Whole species have been wiped out by her, species who were far more benevolent than humanity ever was, or just less interfering. Civilizations, good and bad, have ended. Cities have been destroyed; by floods, by earthquakes, by fire. It really doesn’t take much, or even anything, to set her off, and if she were personified, she wouldn’t have taken any of this shit. It is our gods who change constantly and go through new incarnations. She is the one who has always been here.
Even when “Mother!” tries to address gender, it’s hard to know just how self-aware it is. Since this film has all the subtlety of a semi plowing through traffic, sometimes it is purposeful. But is it truly aware of just how much a man can be forgiven, and just how boring the ideal woman is, with Lawrence unthinkingly providing food, cleaning up, and having no identify of her own other than being a beautiful mother, while Bardem gets to make his own simply because his creation is valued more than human life? Some of this is indeed the point Darren Aronofsky is trying to make. The rest? Who knows.
Kudos to this film for aiming high. But without true wisdom, the end result is just another movie that thinks it’s the 60’s. But it’s not, so a film can’t just have alright artsy pretensions, it actually has to be good.
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