Much has already been written about the commercial and critical failure of Darren Aronofsky’s latest release “Mother!” The film received an F rating from cinemascore, which polls snap responses from audience members as they exit the theaters. Nevertheless, Paramount Pictures, Aronofsky and his star Jennifer Lawrence have been trying their damnedest to defend this difficult experience, even as it’s been left hanging in the public square. But “Mother!” does have its fervent defenders. Some see it as a rich creation myth, while others enjoy it as a visceral display of blackly comic camp. I can see how these interpretations exist within the material but not necessarily how they redeem this messy passion project as a whole.
Lawrence stars as the new wife of a much older poet played by Javier Bardem. They live secluded in the country where Bardem is trying hard to break his writers block, while Lawrence is rebuilding their home after a destructive fire. Their solitude is disrupted when a sick man played by Ed Harris and his wife played by Michelle Pfeifer wander into their lives and makes themselves comfortable. Just as things get awkward and their welcome becomes worn, more uninvited guests arrive and Lawrence’s character gradually begins to realizes that she has no control over the situation. Her sanity is further put to the test when the house itself seems like it's bleeding and responding physically to the emotional stress brought upon by these menacing guests and Bardem’s inability to recognize the problem at all.
That’s the simplest way to describe these events as they occur, but even this bare synopsis doesn’t do justice to the script’s wild arrangement. None of the characters have names and it becomes clear after twenty minutes or so that whatever we’re seeing is not to be taken literally. The movie itself is a poem, structured in stanzas instead of acts and with symbolic imagery standing in the place of plot points. Perhaps if audiences were warned of this before going in to see what was marketed as a psychological horror film, with a poster designed to evoke Polanski’s classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” they may have been more forgiving of Aronofsky’s indulgent storytelling. Then again, it’s also not hard to see how and why someone would lose patience with everything that's going on here.
When a film begs this hard to be asked what it’s actually about, the mind grasps for the nearest allegory. Is it a feminist story about the fears of domesticity? Is it about how celebrities are treated in the ever-present eye of the media? Is it about the complicated and sometimes exploitative relationship between an artist and his inspiration? Aronofsky himself has suggested that it’s an ecological allegory about man destroying mother-earth. “Mother!” is about all of these things and nothing at the same time. As chaos mounts and tension builds within the contained interior setting of this country home, the movie’s meaning shifts and intensifies, sometimes focusing more on Lawrence’s fragile performance and other times on the broader big-picture stuff happening around her. The more broad and otherworldly things get the less of a handle the film has on its symbolism and more unintentionally funny it becomes.
While “Mother!” may go down as a “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar” sized failure, there are reasons to see it and reasons to believe that, like those films, it may find an audience in the future. Lawrence’s protagonist is put through almost Lars Von Trier levels of humiliation and abuse and it’s difficult to follow her journey, but her commitment to the picture, which is almost entirely from her perspective, is thoroughly grounded in textured emotion. Pfeifer’s comic timing and vampy presence also helps to alleviate some of the picture's heavy-handed self-importance. On a technical level, Aronofsky’s subjective camera work and the film’s many shocks certainly deliver, even if the end result is naval gazing, self-serving and aggravating to watch.
Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Sep-2017
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