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Film Review: Mother!

Mother! (2017; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s defamiliarizing psych-horror fable Mother! might as well have been entitled That Escalated Quickly: The Movie. Set entirely in a rambling, isolated country mansion, the film is generally constructed as two unexpected and unwanted visits that crescendo into death and tragedy, seen from the perspective of the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who only wants peace, quiet, cleanliness, and alone time in the house she is renovating for her husband (Javier Bardem), a writer’s-blocked poet labouring to produce a follow-up to a famous and revered prior work. What begins as a chamber-piece social drama about guests that just won’t leave becomes a discomfiting, graphic parable before it is realized (belatedly for me, perhaps embarrassingly so) that the whole thing is a politically-charged biblical allegory. Like I said, that escalated quickly.

The unwelcome guests that first disturb the domestic solitude of Mother and the Poet (so I will choose to call Him, which Aronofsky’s script dubs Bardem’s character) are a researching doctor (Ed Harris) and his uncomfortably forward wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). They are soon followed by their sons (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), who bicker violently and eventually fratricidally over their inheritance, then by a growing mourning party that begins to destroy Mother’s house and test her bustling patience. Mother tries to expel the guests and then scolds them for their destructive misbehaviour, but the Poet can only ever indulge them, no matter how bad things get. Some peace and bliss is restored when Mother becomes pregnant with a long hoped-for son, which sparks the Poet’s creativity at last and leads to the completion and successful release of his promised book. But this bliss is finally and irrevocably shattered by a descent of a flood of his zealous acolytes, whose sincere adulation turns into cultish worship, more violence and disruption, and still greater horrors of blood and fire.

If you hadn’t guessed (and I did not, as I must acknowledge, until sadly late in the film), Lawrence and the house are the Earth, Bardem is God, Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the Gleeson Bros are Cain and Abel, Lawrence and Bardem’s long-awaited child is Jesus Christ, and the waves of unwelcome, damaging guests are the grasping, crude throngs of humanity that has so deformed and threatened and taken for granted the planet that is their shared home. I honestly ought to have clued into Aronofsky’s allegorical intent early on, amidst the business with the precious apple-like lump of crystal given pride of place and care in the Poet’s private writing library, and certainly should have caught on after the fratricide, to say nothing of the broken sink and flooding episode that leads Mother to banish everyone from the house. I suppose, if I want to absolve my own perceived slowness to interpretation, that it’s testimony to Aronofsky’s clever construction and immersive experiential perspective that he is able to misdirect the audience for so long about the subtext of what’s happening in Mother!

But when one realizes that Mother! is simply allegorically retelling the foundational narrative of Judeo-Christian cultural civilization, once all hint of the specificity and psychological nuance of the actor’s performances vanish into the grand sweep of the Greatest Story Ever Told, one is left to wonder at the point of it all. Aronofsky – who has tread the biblical boards in previous films like Noah and, to some extent, the heightened philosophical mysticism of The Fountain – plays with some bold critiques of human nature and religious faith here, especially concerning the fundaments of Christianity, but the parable-type tone largely means that nothing really lands.

The masterfully orchestrated litany of encounters that Lawrence has with the houseguests are brief doodles of visual thought on ritual worship, political oppression and revolution, and the nature of God. Mother! is a tremendously-made film from a technical perspective, with strong performances (Pfeiffer is undergoing an understated renaissance that aging actresses rarely are afforded in Hollywood) and plenty on its mind. But when Darren Aronofsky pulls back the curtain and reveals that this often unsettling work of art is essentially adapting the hoary old book that dominates the complex and problematic construct that we have found ourselves calling Western civilization, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t diminish rather than elevate the final product. Are not human psychology and social conventions and behavioural extremity not fulsome enough subjects without lashing them to the Bible? It’s hard to say that Mother! is made more impressive cinema as a result, and that leaves it as a difficult and paradoxical work of filmic art.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews
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