Upon watching mother!, I knew that it would require more from me as a viewer based on who it was that directed it. Darren Aronofsky doesn't make easy films. Calling him the most challenging filmmaker working in the mainstream today is an accurate assessment. He is known for making heavy, unsubtle films that deal with characters who have obsessions. Obsession seems to be his primary theme that he continuously explores, again and again, I think it's because he can relate to that obsessive personality. He makes films in an obsessive way, always maintaining a level of detail in his visuals, editing, sound design, and characters that approaches insanity. Similar to Fincher, he likes to wallow in the dark side of human existence. He depicts characters whose goals and ambitions often drive them to destruction and madness. In crafting these visions, he often alienates his audiences. I knew that this film was going to be challenging, like his other films. I did not realize that mother! was going to be as difficult a film as it ended up being, though. It is, by far, his most political film.
What can I say about mother! without spoiling it? Talking about this film is easier to do with folks who have already seen it, and unfortunately it doesn't look like that's going to happen for a while. This film had the worst opening for a Jennifer Lawrence film to date. In an effort to elaborate on the plot, I'll try to be vague about specifics. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple. Lawrence is in the process of renovating a home while Bardem is a gifted poet struggling to start work on his latest piece. One night, there is a knock at the door. The stranger is a doctor (Ed Harris) who appears to have mistaken the house for a "bed & breakfast". Bardem's character allows him to stick around as the two hit it off. Lawrence, however, is rightfully dismayed as the man just won't leave, and she experiences repeated bouts of anxiety as her husband continues to welcome him and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) with increasingly open arms.
The premise seems simple enough, but there are several mystical touches that complicate it. In fact, the whole film is loaded with odd, dreamlike imagery. To complicate matters, the film is extremely slow-paced and heavy-handed. Aronofsky's visions tend to be very literal, and this film is definitely no exception. In fact, I'd argue that this may be his most literal film to date. Much of the film consists of close-ups of Lawrence's face. The Wrestler and Black Swan were both like this as well, where the visual image wobbles while the character remains static. It's an off-putting technique, and I would guess that 75% of this film's shots consist of just that.
This film also plays on two of my worst fears -- well, three, but I don't want to spoil the ending that will undoubtedly spark controversy -- in ways that thoroughly made me uncomfortable. mother! is primarily about both the fear of people staying in your home against your will and the fear of having a mess that can't be cleaned up. Similarly to the Coen Brothers' thriller, Blood Simple, mother! preys on the viewer's comfort level in extreme ways that feel violating. It's almost like an experimental film in this approach, and the characters are mostly all quite loud, rude, evasive, and obnoxious. In fact, the whole film feels obnoxious and imposing. Jennifer Lawrence's character was sympathetic, almost to a fault. It's easy to feel sorry for her and there are moments where it gets emotional. However, none of it is anything compared to what happens next.
It's going to seem prudish of me to say, but I have to be honest. I felt a little offended by this film. At least I think I did. I'm not sure. I'm not good at being offended. I guess...it just hurt my feelings? I felt that Aronofsky's storytelling methods in this film were deceitful and misleading. His decision to take the premise as far as he does felt punishing and borderline abusive. There is a surprising lack of tactfulness here, which is not unusual for Aronofsky. I don't know how else to put it, and I'm dismayed because I have never felt this way about a film before. I love watching films where I feel in over my head. The first time I saw Blue Velvet, for example, I was floored.
The fact is, Aronofsky has made an undeniably effective film here, and deceiving the audience is something that is common in horror films anyway. A lot of the most effective thrillers go out of their way to pull the rug out from under the viewer. Aronofsky has done this kind of thing brilliantly before. Thrusting us, full force, into the darkest realms of mankind. His 2000 film, Requiem for a Dream is, to me, a cinematic masterwork on the same level as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is a tour-de-force of human pain and suffering. However, with mother!, I don't know if Aronofsky's decision to drop us into such a pit of despair was entirely justified this time. I can't recall a film in recent years where a character in a film experiences such a brutal level of emotional agony. The second hour of this picture is loud, crude, and rife with screaming and crying.
Now, to be fair, I saw the film less than twenty-four hours ago and I do believe it is the kind of picture that you have to let settle in your brain. Writing initial reactions about a film like this is dangerous because the brilliance of it can take some time to seep in, and I don't want to discourage anyone from seeing something this good and this socially relevant. I guess, at the end of the day, I'm just bothered that Aronofsky is still doing what Aronofsky does best. Maybe I just want him to make a happy film, for once. A family film, perhaps? It's possible that I'm just growing older and am becoming more sensitive to subject matter like this. At the same time, I admire his passion and I appreciate the message that -- I think -- he is trying to convey with mother!. If I am offended by this film, it's only because I'm offended by the state of the world right now. That's the conclusion that I'm coming to. Regardless of why I felt such an emotional reaction, it doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the film. So I'm not going to talk about my feelings anymore.
Objectively speaking, I think that Aronofsky had a very clear and specific vision and he succeeded in pulling it off. The level of confidence and control that he has over each and every aspect of his films never ceases to amaze me. His films often always boast some daring and emotionally involving performances, and mother! is no exception. Although Jennifer Lawrence's performance still doesn't reach the heights of what she does in Winter's Bone, she certainly pushes herself in the right direction here and grows steadily closer to achieving that level of excellence again. She should be very proud of her work here. Pfeiffer, and Harris both have a lot of campy, vampy fun. Bardem can do a role like this in his sleep and never ceases to disappoint. I mean, overall, it's a very good film. Even now, as I write this, I do feel more and more thankful that I saw mother! and I do hope that the right kind of audience finds this film. Bear in mind, though, that I don't recommend this film to the casual viewer. It's definitely a powerful film. It may even be his greatest film. I don't know. Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler are both very tough acts to follow. In a sense, this film reminded me more of his debut film, Pi, in both its psychedelic visuals and its atmosphere of extreme paranoia and claustrophobia. The comparisons to Rosemary's Baby are apt. In thinking it over, I'm pretty sure I love it. If you want an intense horror film that might require more thought from you as a viewer, mother! is a must-see. My advice to everyone else, bring a barf bag and proceed with caution.