Film Review: Mother! (2017)

Mother! is a long nightmare filled with paranoia, jealousy, anger and lovelessness. It is, as anticipated by film festival goers, a divisive film. While audiences have given it on average an F according to Cinemascore, critics have been a bit more receptive to Aronofsky’s latest cinematic experiment.

The film’s detractors speak about its overindulgence, lack of restrain and penchant for melodrama. While the film’s admirers will point to its value as a deeply metaphorical cinematic statement that commits to large and small ideas alike.

My feelings about the film, almost a week after I first watched it, are still wavering somewhat, not knowing if I fall in with those who already awash the film with praise, or those that appreciate its ambition and vision while questioning its choices.

By no means a perfect or pretty film, one thing that cannot be said about Mother! is that it is boring or unimaginative.

Like much of Aronofsky’s work before, Mother! is the kind of film that, instead of escapism, offers no respite and no time to catch our collective breath. It is a film that finds its emotional center in unrequited love, but that eventually reveals itself to be about many more things. Mother! is the kind of experimental cinema that escapes categorization. It is scary, exhilarating, melodramatic, satirical and occasionally funny. It is also Hitchcockian in the sense that it loves to manipulate and tease the audience, hinting at possible resolutions that are nothing more than cinematic instruments of deception that rely on horror lore to deceive us.

At the center of the film are Javier Bardem and the much younger Jennifer Lawrence (a detail that does not escape Aronofsky). We begin the film with a woman burning, her flesh consumed by fire. Moments later, Bardem who plays “Him” (per the film’s end credits), picks up what appears to be a crystal from the ashes. As he places it on a kind of altar, the house around him begins to set itself anew, replacing the burned wood for painted walls and beautiful woodwork. As the renewal gets to a bed, a woman, Jennifer Lawrence, rolls toward the camera and away from the sheets.

At first, we presume the sequence is nothing else that the passage of time and that the woman burning in the fire was perhaps a previous partner, but soon enough, the movie goes back to that rock, which Bardem’s “Him”, an acclaimed poet, zealously protects as he struggles to find a way out from writer’s block. While he struggles to find inspiration, his companion labors to bring the house they both share to its former glory. Lawrence’s performance for most of the film’s running time is physical, walking around the house, washing dishes, cleaning, priming and painting. When we meet them, there are only passing conversations between the two. He is too consumed by his work, while she fulfills the role of a housewife fighting to keep the relationship alive.

One of the interesting things about Mother! is that Aronofsky ultimately uses these characters to build a story that points to larger ideas. There is, for instance, something to be said about the relationship between a great artist and his muse that perhaps echoes Aronofsky’s own personal experiences (the director divorced his actress wife Rachel Weisz in 2010 after nine years of marriage). It also becomes increasingly obvious that, among other things, the film is imbued with biblical parallelisms, which is an aspect of the film that may be entirely lost on those with a limited knowledge of theology.

Beyond the metaphors tucked in between the lines, what I found most interesting was Aronofsky’s direction. It is frenetic, claustrophobic and, at times, disorienting, staying very close to its characters, following Jennifer Lawrence through nearly every bit of film. As told by Aronofsky himself in recent interviews, the script and context for Mother! poured out of him all at once, over the course of a few days at a frustrating and angry time in his life. Unsurprisingly, the anger he felt when writing, translated not only to a story that revels in paranoia and a sense of helplessness, but also to the way the film is shot. It is filmmaking of the highest caliber, adding to the story and giving it some resonance, rather than hampering it or distracting us.

As I said at the beginning, Mother! is by no means a perfect specimen. It has the feel and the quality of an cinematic experiment, rather than that of a carefully calibrated and finished product. Like the house it confines us too, it has a kind of rawness that is not bulletproof when analyzed and dissected. More than a perfectly realized story, Mother! is about the larger statement and about the feelings it manages to bring to the fore.

Did it need to make all of the weird choices it did? Maybe it did not. On the one hand, it is prone to exaggerate, always opting for larger, louder and more shocking, making it one of the least accessible films you’ll see this year. On the other, it is a deeply personal endeavor that is consistent when seen as a larger whole or as part of a larger body of work.

This is Aronofsky near his very best.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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