It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, mostly because August has become a desolate wasteland for films. (Although you should absolutely see Detroit and Logan Lucky if you get a chance.) Luckily we’re slowly getting into Oscar season, which means studios have remembered they don’t have to release poor films just to please teenagers who spend their time at the movies contemplating the feasibility of getting to third base in the last row of the theater.
It’s this mentality that leads to films like mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. I didn’t really understand what it was when I went into it. I know that it was marketed as a horror film with some vaguely religious overtones. I was expecting something like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
It’s not. mother! is a simultaneously fascinating and frustrating film. Aronofsky was not interested in courting the main stream, despite his recognizable cast. The story may seem familiar but has been turned into something dark and ugly. It’s an uncompromising film in an age where everyone seems to be seeking compromise so as not to offend their own beliefs.
Maybe that’s why people have turned against it so much. But to dismiss mother! is a mistake. Arronofsky’s film is an intelligent allegory that time will treat kindly.
For the first act, I tried in vain to figure out what the film was “really” about. I was convinced that the film is like a code that requires you to “understand” it. It’s the idea that lead to the insipid Room 237 documentary. It starts with the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a giant mansion in the woods with Him (Javier Bardem). Like Antichrist, no characters are named. Their idyllic life is interrupted by an older couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer), who wander into their home and start questioning aspects of the couples life.
I can’t quite say what happens after that. There’s murder, pregnancy, mysterious images of death and decay, and a paranoia reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. But mother! is not interested in the standard narrative conventions. There’s never a moment where the film tries to explain itself or even identify if it’s a skewed point of view. “Is this all a bad dream?” an audience member behind me asked, about ten minutes before it ended. The film isn’t saying.
It’s easy to pick up on a few of the symbols. mother! is a Christian allegory, taking some of the ideas presented in the Bible to their logical conclusion. It starts with the Garden of Eden (the home) and Adam and Eve arriving, a tragedy involving their sons, the birth of Christ, the devotion of his followers, and the ultimate destruction that blind faith and fear causes in the Book of Revelation. It’s more difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. The film is very Kubrickian in that regard. It’s no interested in the emotional plight of its characters – not even Mother. It’s more interested in trying to convey its symbols to the audience. Yet I couldn’t figure them out at first. I spent my time wondering how many things that dying heart in the walls of the house could possibly be, wondering if I would get a payoff.
So why was it only when I stopped trying to figure it out did it work for me if mother! didn’t have an emotional core and was uninterested in allowing the audience to keep up? Because then I realized that the film didn’t have just one meaning and, no matter what, I was admiring the skill behind it. mother! was completely unpredictable and what it left up to the imagination was just as intriguing as the images it created. For example, we never get a chance to read Him’s poetry for ourselves. But everyone who does is left in an emotional frenzy. Mother is reduced to tears and can only repeat that “it’s beautiful” after she reads his final draft. So what does it say? The fact mother! doesn’t reveal his poetry is part of the point.
People criticized Eyes Wide Shut when it was released, but no one recognized how it created a world from the ground up that was only familiar enough to be completely disturbing. mother! works the same way. It’s party scenes feel familiar, like parties you’ve been to or even hosted. But as things become more out of control (fans begin ripping pieces of the wall off the house “just to prove they were there”), the film feels more like a nightmare that many people have had, where you recognize where you are but everything looks wrong. mother!’s subversion of expectations is what makes it so memorable and so horrific.
The weakest spot in the film for me is Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. The reason a movie like Black Swan worked was because of Natalie Portman’s performance. She served as a gateway into the world of Swan and I felt as confused and scared as she was. I never felt that with Mother. This film doesn’t have the same goals as Swan, but I was still left wanting more from Lawrence. She’s been sleepwalker through roles lately and I don’t know why. Lawrence maintains an emotional distance throughout the film that makes it difficult to relate to her and thus even more difficult to understand Mother’s plight. I usually don’t blame actors but I have a feeling a reason the film was made was thanks to Lawrence’s influence. Why bother if you don’t have passion in your performance?
But then is hard for me to complain about a lack of humanity in any actor when the characters they play may not even be human. And I found it very easy to relate to her demeanor as she ordered strangers not to sit on an unfinished sink at a party, and try to sneak away from the invading guests as they become more violent. It was enough for what the film needed, if not enough to get Lawrence any award recognition.
mother! is a film that requires an awful lot of patience. More patience that most people are probably going to be able to muster. But there is a pay off and mother! contains some of the most haunting images in modern horror. I understand why some people will dismiss it outright, but I can only admire its ambition and the lasting effect it left on me. Aronofsky’s got something here that I don’t fully understand. But I still admire it.