I have been slightly frustrated ever since I saw Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother! and putting my finger on exactly what has been so frustrating has been about it has only increased my frustration. Technically, the film works very well; it’s finely constructed in its editing, sound mixing and claustrophobic, in-your-face cinematography style. Or, it may be more accurate to say, “In Jennifer Lawrence’s face,” as a great deal of the tense claustrophobia is built by having the camera rarely leaving Lawrence’s – who is credited only as mother and, like all the other characters, is unnamed – face or point-of-view. I can say without contradiction that I enjoyed the movie, but something about it has also left me slightly cold and certainly unmoved. I think, after some cooling off time after I left the theatre, I was bothered by how mother! has failed to elicit much of an emotion out of me other than slight indifference.
This review is written somewhat as a response and a counter piece to my colleague, Tristan Rich-Goding’s review of mother!, titled: “Cinematic Literalism Gone Mad: My Initial Feelings on Darren Aronofsky’s mother!” In it, he writes that mother! left him in a state of reeling, feeling as if Aronofsky’s filmmaking methods were “punishing and borderline abusive,” leaving him in a state of shock and offense. If I have misrepresented his words, I’m sure I will hear from him, but it is not my wish to paint those who saw the film and were bothered by it as being overly emotional, because it was my hope that I would leave the theatre with a similar emotional response. Instead I felt myself finding the proceedings more gleefully enjoyable than I did infuriating and it infuriates me that a film that has left so many in shock or awe but has not landed for me.
To quickly summarise the plot, without spoiling too much, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are a married couple who live in a large house that is isolated from anything resembling civilization. Lawrence is in the midst of renovating the house as Bardem, who is a poet, is trying to break through a bout of writer’s block. Their isolation is disrupted when a man claiming to be a doctor (Ed Harris) knocks on the door believing the house to be a bed and breakfast. Bardem allows him to stay the night and before long the two begin to get along famously, to the point where Harris’ stay is extended indefinitely, despite Lawrence’s objections and frequent anxiety attacks. Soon more strangers arrive, including Harris’ wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, which only increases Lawrence’s anxiety and panic.
Much has been made of the allegorical aspects of the plot, with Bardem, Lawrence and the rest of the characters reportedly representing figures from the Bible. This is also reportedly true of the house in which the central couple live apparently being allegorical for mother nature; as the house is invaded by more strangers, the more damaged and aged the house looks, despite Lawrence’s best efforts at renovation. So, it’s easy to read this as an allegory for the mistreatment of the earth by humans and the damage we do to it through pollution and industrialization. This is especially apparent when the strangers not only invade Lawrence’s space but also start deliberately breaking or painting over much of the work Lawrence has already done. None of the allegorical work is particularly subtle, but anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s work will be familiar with this particular sledge hammer-like lack of subtlety, especially when regarding these themes in particular. To some respect, mother! could be seen as a companion piece to Aronofsky’s cinematic adaptation of Noah (2014), the biblical story of Noah’s flood in which the titular character is recreated as a sort of bug-eyed, axe wielding eco-warrior. While I can appreciate a well-woven allegory, it’s often something I find easier to appreciate than to enjoy outright and regardless of how stimulating a film can be on a sub textual level, it needs to first work on a contextual level.
Thankfully, the context worked very well and one aspect on which Tristan and I are in full agreement is that the film plays very well on the fear of having people staying in your home against your will and then refusing to leave. The anxieties about the invasion of one’s privacy lead to the film’s most tense moments, and the discomfort in these moments raise from mild to palpable. For me, these moments were fleeting and slightly too brief, but I understand that I am in the minority in this regard. This is something I wish to stress: my reaction is by far in the minority, but I found that my discomfort level always safely went back down and I never found myself fully tense or wound up by the proceedings, especially by the ending.
Before you continue, there will be some slight spoilers regarding the ending, but I won’t refer to specific events or moments. I will understand if you do not wish to continue reading until you have seen the film. What I will say is that if you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992) or George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), on a contextual level, a similar sort of invasion happens, just not involving zombies. Although, I don’t think it’s so much the context of these final scenes that are bothering people so much as how the invasion relates to the religious allegory, which ramps up in this final act. As much as a sadist as it may make me sound, nothing about the final half-an-hour bothered me, and frankly I found myself having fun. Fun in a way that only a fan of exploitation horror cinema can understand.
As silly as it sounds, my enjoyment bothered me because I went in with expectations that I would be bothered or offended, or at least finding myself pondering the implications of how Aronofsky paired his layered subtext with such an explosive ending. Tristan was floored, which is how I wanted to feel; instead I found myself having fun at some glorious, red blooded exploitation. An ending such as this is the kind of thing that would have had this movie picketed had it been released thirty years ago, or placed on the infamous “Video Nasties” list, had it been released on VHS in Britain sometime in the 80s, so I found myself happy that a film made today would take such a bold step.
Perhaps a second viewing is in order, and instead of watching mother! with expectations of its reputation, I can enjoy it for being a piece of pulpy exploitation cinema, albeit one with arthouse credibility and film festival prestige under its belt. I understand that I was perhaps biased coming in to mother! since it was only a month ago that I was complaining that none of the torture scenes in the I Spit on Your Grave remake were as impactful as the original. I am also on a personal journey to plug any gaps in my grindhouse, exploitation knowledge. So, perhaps the reason I was not shook to my core by the ending of mother! was that instead of catching me by surprise, it was giving me a feeling of déjà vu of films I was already seeing.
On a slightly different note, this is the best Jennifer Lawrence has been for a while, perhaps since Winter’s Bone and it’s a shame that this film’s bad reputation with audiences won’t allow her core fan base to appreciate her talent beyond the limits of The Hunger Games franchise. Aronofsky has made films that I have liked more than mother!, specifically Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, but none of his previous filmography is as fascinatingly frustrating as this film, and despite my misgivings, it will be a long time before I will stop thinking about it. Having two pieces on mother! was unplanned until the day before my writing of this review, but I am so glad that this film was the first to inspire companion piece reviews, as the opinions on mother! have contrasted so greatly that I’m sure the discussions to follow will be rich and plentiful. Tristan advises that mother! is a must see for audiences who wish to see a thought provoking horror movie and a film to turn the stomach of everyone else. I’ll add a third audience category. If you are a fan of both grindhouse exploitation and smartly layered sub textual allegory, mother! may be the film to tick that box.