Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 12, 2017)
For his first effort since 2014’s Noah, ambitious filmmaker Darren Aronofshy returns with 2017’s mother!. A famous poet (Javier Bardem) and his young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) take up residence in a remote home.
Struck with writer’s block, the poet hopes that this setting will spur his creative juices, and his wife attempts to assist him as she restores the house. This starts to unravel when an older man (Ed Harris) shows up at their house and eventually invites his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Matters slowly spiral out of control from there.
Aronofsky seems like a polarizing director, though I admit I can’t quite get a handle on how I feel about him. On one hand, I actively loathed the pretentious and absurd Black Swan, but I liked Noah and Requiem for a Dream, so I don’t let my disdain for Swan override everything else.
With mother!, we get Good Aronofsky and Bad Aronofsky crammed all into one intriguing, befuddling and occasionally maddening package. The film clearly failed to resonate with audiences, as not only did the movie bomb at the box office, but also those who did see it awarded it spectacularly low ratings.
To some degree, I blame the promotional campaign for mother!, as it made promises the film couldn’t deliver. Paramount touted it as an “event movie” – ads promised “you will never forget where you were the first time you saw mother!.
Based on the trailers, I think audiences expected some form of Gothic horror film, not the warped, mind-bending effort they got. Inevitably this led to severe disappointment and anger.
I saw mother! theatrically and found myself between the extremes. While I understand the dissatisfaction it inspires, I think it delivers an often dynamic and engaging effort.
For its first two acts, at least, as the movie goes off the rails during its final third. Granted, Aronofsky walks a tightrope, as he builds a tale anchored in metaphor that doesn’t shy away from surreal imagery and a lack of realism from the start while he still tries to keep the viewer invested in some form of realism.
Let’s face it: we need to attach to the wife and the poet as people if we’ll connect to the increasingly outrageous story. As noted, Aronofsky offers distorted, surreal material from the film’s onset, but the movie seems grounded in the real world enough to let us dig into it.
These moments fare best, as the film succeeds when it sticks with the perplexing rather than the genuinely bizarre. The visitor and his wife behave strangely, but not to such a degree that they seem wholly unbelievable. This allows the movie a sense of skewed reality that intrigues us and provokes us to figure out the nature of the material.
Interpretations of the story/characters vary, though Biblical allusions abound. The visitor and his wife clearly stand in for Adam and Eve, which makes the poet God and the young wife “Mother Earth”. The visitor’s kids become Abel and Cain – and so on.
I also think the story offers an allegory for the Price of Fame. We see the way fans treat the poet and their ever-increasing demands along with abhorrent behavior. Throw in Lawrence’s status as a “tabloid queen” and it doesn’t become a stretch to interpret that side of the tale.
However one dissects the movie, I feel it keeps us engaged best during those initial two acts. After that, the metaphors fly fast and violent as the movie becomes wholly unhinged.
To some degree, I feel this derails what Aronofsky accomplished with the first two acts. Those moments feel intriguing without a sense of obnoxiousness, but the last third comes across as chaotic and abrasive.
Which Aronofsky clearly intended, but I just don’t think it works. The final act flies off the rails and gives the viewer too little grounding.
Still, mother! presents a thought-provoking piece, and I respect its ambitions. While the movie doesn’t fully succeed, it turns into a memorable experience, warts and all.