Mother! Shocks; You’ll Be Crying Home to Yours

| February 27, 2018 | 0 Comments

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is incendiary. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as an acquiescing and dedicated wife in a disappointingly dated depiction of a domestic woman (at least until the third act, when all expectations are upended). It also features Javier Bardem as her husband, a blocked writer eerily referred to as “The Poet,” along with Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris in chilling supporting roles. The film is Aronofsky’s most ambitious yet. He relies on complete trust from his audience, and while the payoff is ultimately disappointing, you could certainly do worse than to put your faith in an Aronofsky movie for two hours—it’s a guaranteed spectacular trip into the disturbed psyches of his suffering (and in Mother!’s case, improbably attractive) characters.

One of Aronofsky’s most admirable qualities as an auteur is his refusal to make films that are easy to watch. He confronts the darkest corners of human experience, and he does not shy from the macabre. He so deftly immerses the audience into his characters’ consciousnesses, that subjectivity and reality become blended, and then irrelevant. It’s because of this psychological inversion that Requiem for a Dream remains his scariest film–the minds of junkies and amphetamine addicts are nothing short of hell, and every shot is designed to convey that singular fact.

A visual theme throughout his work is the mutilation of the body. Graphic, yes. But until Mother! these images were always justified by the substance. Regarding Requiem for a Dream, for example, we would not be unjustified in asking if we really need to watch Jared Leto shoot heroin into an infected abscess on his arm. But the answer is yes: the experience of nausea and despondency is inextricable from the film’s entire point about addiction and love. Likewise, do we really need to watch Mickey Rourke pulling staples out of his chest in The Wrestler? Yes, because we need to participate in his self-loathing that is both the cause and effect of his assault on his own body. And do we really need to watch Natalie Portman pull back the skin of an entire finger in Black Swan? Yes–her mental deterioration, and therefore, the film, hinges on that of the physical. The problem with Mother!, however, is not merely that Aronofsky has increased his blood budget, but that the blood is largely gratuitous; it isn’t based in the thematic substance. The shock of the violence–and it does shock–seems motivated by the desire to horrify his audience rather than in the narrative. You won’t have to go far to find those eager to defend his divisive methods, and their arguments are not entirely without merit. But graphic violence toward women and images that evoke those of concentration camps are, to me, outside the bounds of what Mother!’s substance justifies.

From the opening shots, Mother! beguiles. It divulges almost no exposition. Dialogue is sparse. Answers are slow to come, if they come at all. For most of the film, the only anchors one has are a house and its visual clues (with brilliant production design by Philip Messina), and the extraordinary performances. While the audience is confused for at least the first two-thirds of the film, Lawrence keeps us riveted. She is tender and torrid with equal passion. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. It’s disappointing that she has a single motivation for almost the whole film: to keep their house undisturbed by their increasingly belligerent visitors, while also placating her husband, who welcomes them and, in fact, needs their vitality for his creative inspiration. The house can be understood as a manifestation of her psyche, and her lack of agency as allegorical. But allegories must function first and foremost on the level of the literal. The first and only believable marital fight comes way too late, and by then the credibility issues are so numerous that the honesty of the scene is almost as jarring as it is riveting.

That Aronofsky is undoubtedly a technical master of filmmaking makes his latest all the more frustrating. He is that director who orchestrates every facet of his medium into a product greater than the sum of its parts. The soundscape in Mother! is precisely haunting (notably, the film lacks a score). The production design alone makes the film worth watching. And the cinematography is immaculate. Much of the film is shot either close on Lawrence, with his signature handheld tracking motif, or from her POV. Working with his career-long cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky has developed an original and unsentimental visual language that makes his psychological dramas soar above almost any other contemporary auteur. That is, when the substance is sufficient to back up the style; it’s probably no coincidence that Mother! is his only film on which he has the sole writing credit.

Dazzling, dizzying, operatic finale sequences stretching as long as thirty minutes (as in Black Swan) are to Aronofsky as volume level eleven was to Spinal Tap–no one else has access. Moreover, they usually culminate in endings that leave room for interpretation, and successful ambiguous endings are a testament to a director’s mastery. Mother!’s ending, however, merely confounds. No doubt, scores of film students will be eager to write their theses elucidating the genius meaning behind the film’s trick-within-a-trick ending. Personally, I felt cheated. What had promise to be insightful and nuanced turned cynical and nihilistic. Especially since the most concrete clue we have as to what actually happened is the heavy-handed, sentimental closing-credit song–Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World.”

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