Director: Darren Aronofsky

Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer LawrenceJavier BardemEd Harris

Review: David Stephens

That Darren Aronofsky’s a bit of a renegade filmmaker and shifty fella, isn’t he? His first two films were the trippy mathematical “horror” called “Pi” (1998) and the harrowing anti-addict fable “Requiem for a Dream” (2000). His next two films “The Fountain” and “The Wrestler” drew plenty of critical attention, but it was “Black Swan” (2010) that really drew genre fans to his surreal style of cinema. The tale of obsession and sexuality, collided with the perfectionist backdrop of ballet, to produce some startling body (and psychological) horror. The faux bible epic “Noah” in 2014 was his next project, but his latest opus is another one that caught the interest of those that appreciate the darker heart of film, and is oddly called “mother!” (Lower case letter and exclamation mark included). Ambiguous posters showed the film’s lead actress Jennifer Lawrence literally offering her bleeding heart to someone, whilst later ones looked suspiciously close to those for the classic “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). Was it a “stealth” remake? Aronofsky kept everything close to his chest. The teasing trailers gave little in the way of a definitive plot, as they only suggested some kind of subversive home-invasion flick. We can now find out for ourselves as it’s released in the UK and US cinemas. YGROY runs out to get a last-minute Mother’s day card from the nearest garage before taking in a *Spoiler-Free* viewing…

The film starts with a couple of ominous images (that we won’t spoil) before zeroing in on Lawrence’s character. She wakes up looking for her husband/partner/whatever and eventually finds him (Javier Bardem) in the beautiful mansion that they share. He’s a writer/poet who is currently suffering from writer’s block, whilst she’s a proficient homemaker that has entirely renovated the whole house by herself. Despite his frustrations, they are happy together until a stranger turns up at the door (Ed Harris). Purporting to be a doctor and seemingly in ill-health himself, they allow him to stay. However, he’s closely followed unexpectedly by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in a deliciously nasty performance). This is just the start of a series of events that escalate steadily into a state of anxiety for Lawrence’s character and an apparent end to her perfect existence…

There are 3 particular words that seem to be used in nearly every review of this film that we’ve seen online. And those words are; “bat”, “shit”, and “crazy”. Form those into a well-known phrase and sentence, add an exclamation mark, and you get an idea as to the tone of those articles. That description is true to an extent, but possibly not in the way that people have been anticipating. The clever promotional material and posters have steered people into thinking that they can expect a humongous plot-twist or major revelations regarding the characters. But suffice to say (and being necessarily ambiguous) that this experience is closer to “The Fountain” rather than “Black Swan”. And it’s going to be incredibly divisive for many…

To start with though, we’ll tick off the superlative aspects of the movie. Lawrence is indeed excellent and gives a bravura performance. She runs the gauntlet of emotions perfectly; from ineffectual and non-confrontational, to angered and ferocious. More impressive is the fact that she’s the focus of the film for 99.9% of the time. The camera constantly shadows her every move and we only see things from her perspective – snatches of conversation, brief glimpses of figures and corruption in the house – we only experience what she does and we share her confusion and frustration. When her personal space is invaded, it becomes almost a suburban version of “torture-porn”. This is accentuated by the fantastic camera-work and composition by Aronofsky. When not immediately following Lawrence, the camera twirls around her head, or frames her face like that of a Madonna (the religious icon … not the singer). It’s very impressive stuff. Pfeiffer also scores with a fantastic turn as the annoyingly passive-aggressive woman with withering put-downs and glances. Bardem impresses more subtly with his offbeat and slightly frustrating character who seems entirely too concerned with things that he shouldn’t be.

The plot teases with some grotesque imagery and hints of wrongness, before it unleashes the full situation at the end. There are hints of a warped home-invasion story, or a haunted house. There are glimpses of blood-stains that won’t wash away, and weird things lurking in the bathroom. But if you know Aronofsky, then you know things are never going to be that simple, and you shouldn’t expect a straightforward “horror”.

As the film moves on from slow-burn WTF? territory, it starts to escalate into a serious of oddly melodramatic narratives, and then goes for the jugular with full-on nonsensical violent shenanigans. There are some highly disturbing images and moments, all handled well by the cast, and by a couple of unexpected cameos (including the excellent Stephen McHattie which will please genre fans). But it’s all over-shadowed by the hidden meanings and sub-texts. In latter scenes, narrative becomes a slave to bitter analogies and bad-tempered double-meanings. There’s an over-arching analogy that explains the whole story (Harris and Pfeiffer hold the key if you become lost), but it also splits into multi-layers of more personal metaphors that can be read in a variety of ways. Expect multiple sites to have umpteen articles explaining what it all means, but whatever you take away from it will be your choice…

Whatever your opinion, you’ll be likely to come away from the film with your head buzzing and thinking about it for some time. And that’s a good thing … and a little of a bad thing. Because this is a movie of ideas and analogy, rather than anything else. The fact that everything has to “mean” something other than just story progression, this means that much of it feels hard to connect with … and a little pretentious and smug. We’re fans of intelligent filmmaking, but on this occasion the main acts of “mother!” just collapse in on themselves from the sheer weight of ambition and objectives. It’s a very unusual and brave film for a studio to make, and that should be applauded. But for us, it didn’t really succeed as a movie-going experience, more like a lecture in the fine art of … well; we won’t go any further into spoiler land.

We’ve gone for a middling-rating (probably the worst reaction as far as Aronofsky would be concerned). Whilst we appreciate the skill and talent on show, and the whole thing descends into something that’s eye-catching and disturbing, but due to the sheer number of analogies it just doesn’t have that emotion heft that you crave. That’s just us (or this writer). You may love it, you may hate it. After the abundance of positive reviews, it’ll be interesting as to what impact word-of-mouth will have on it. As we’re in the middle-ground, we guess it makes us “mother!” duckers…

March 17, 2020

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“mother!” is a “difficult” film in many respects. It does have an incredible performance from Lawrence and showcases some superb filmmaking from Aronofsky. But it’s the latter half of the film, with its heavy-handed and multi-layered allegories that will determine on what opinion you leave the cinema with. For us … it crumbles under the weight of its own pretensions and ambitions. But you may well think differently …
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