At this point, we all know the casual moviegoer has decided that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is a mess of epic proportions. With its underwhelming opening weekend box office and “F” CinemaScore, the film’s theatrical life will be very short but the art house crowd may allow it to find life down the road to make it a cult classic. There is clearly a disconnect between cinephiles (moviegoers that dissect every nuance of a film) and the casual moviegoer who seek escapism entertainment. In this case, the marketing for mother! was all over the place. Is it a horror film? Domestic thriller? No one could really tell. All we could gather is that Jennifer Lawrence is growing more and more isolated in a house as unwanted visitors invade it. In a time when moviegoers are paying upwards of $16.00 for a movie ticket, vague marketing can signal box office trouble and it can lead to poor word of mouth if the marketing is purposely misleading (meaning you go in expecting one thing and then you receive the bait & switch and receive something else).
This has been the underlining problem with mother! since it opened over the weekend and as a reviewer I’m asked to review a film and recommend it on its own merits but I find it a bit hard with this one. Some movies are of the love it or hate variety and rarely one comes down in the middle but for the sake of this review, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Kudos to Darren Aronofsky for having the courage to make this film. Kudos to Paramount Pictures for having the guts to open this wide rather than burying it or hiding it as a VOD release. That being said, for shame on Paramount Pictures for marketing this as mainstream fare when it clearly isn’t. I enjoyed the film because it’s stylistically arresting and features solid performances but there is no way I could recommend this to my friends who are looking for a good time at the movies. It’s clearly not for everyone and as an artistic experiment it works for me but it’s not meant to get butts in the seat.
With mother!, Aronofsky seems determined to baffle, infuriate, and divide his audience. Because of its nature, there are those who will love the film (as i mentioned earlier) and those who will hate it. It thumbs its nose at conventions and goes off the deep with no apologies by wallowing in self-indulgence and directorial excess. It would be unfair to say the movie doesn’t make sense – it does, when examined closely – but the method of storytelling is where mother! will make friends and enemies. Aronofsky abandons conventional narrative techniques and basic logic in favor of a metaphorical approach that embraces the power of individual images even if they make no sense at first glance.
In one of the first signs that the film is bucking conventions, none of the characters have names. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young wife wed to a narcissistic older author (Javier Bardem) who, despite having once written a great novel, is now afflicted with what seems to be a permanent writer’s block. The couple has moved into the author’s childhood home, which at some point was ravaged by a fire. The wife, a skilled interior decorator (and, it would seem, carpenter, mason, and plumber) has essentially rebuilt the palatial estate from its ashes. But it may be haunted. At least there’s some pernicious force at work. One evening, a “doctor” (Ed Harris) arrives at the door, explaining that he mistakenly believed the house to be a B&B. The author invites him in and, ignoring his wife’s misgivings, invites him to spend the night. The doctor is afflicted by an awful cough but, the next morning, he seems okay. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives soon after and the older couple makes themselves at home with the author’s blessing. Then, unexpectedly, the doctor’s sons arrive, quarreling over their father’s will. A fight ensues, one of the sons dies, and the author’s wife is left alone in the spooky house while everyone else goes to the hospital.
The first half of mother! although not conventional by any means, gets by primarily on atmosphere and audacity. There are numerous extended takes and close-ups and these emphasize the sense of claustrophobia. The story’s excesses strain the bounds of credulity (as mourners inexplicably show up at the author’s house to offer their condolences to the doctor and his wife on the death of one son and the disappearance of the other) but don’t break it. I was particularly enthralled by the first half of the film because it’s dripping in style and shows that Aronofsky is a great visual filmmaker with a distinct palette for his projects. That changes during Act II when Aronofsky throws everything at the viewer including the kitchen sink. There are so many bizarre images that the movie becomes a kind-of cinematic hot mess (in the best way for this watcher, I was equal parts intrigued and baffled). There’s violence, sex, dancing, feasting, quasi-religious rituals, and some of the most repugnant iconography imaginable. The climax is shockingly graphic and uncompromising, but the bleakness of that moment pales in comparison with the recursive aspect that follows. I will say that the audience I saw it with was bored by the first half and ready to walk out by the time we got to this point which made me see that this film was setting itself to be ravaged on all forms of social media.
One thing that most could agree on is that the acting is top notch. Jennifer Lawrence once again proves she’s an actress beyond her years. I’m not sure that most 27-year-old actresses could bring all the dramatic nuances to a role like this but Lawrence certainly does. We need to be on her side because her confusion and growing fear is ours and as long as we stay with her, the end result really works. Some aren’t used to Lawrence playing a victim (a criticism of the film that has been big on Twitter) but she gains our sympathy in a big way and depending on how crowded the field is (and if the industry doesn’t dismiss the film entirely) Lawrence could pick up another Oscar nomination for best actress. . Javier Bardem is perfect – suave, self-centered, oblivious, and ambiguous. We’re never quite sure about him, even after the curtain is pulled back. That’s a difficult thing to pull off but Bardem does it. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are equally good, with Pfeiffer, in particular, owning the scenes in which she appears, sometimes without even saying a line. She’s on a comeback tour with numerous films set for release and all I could think was welcome back Michelle Pfeiffer.
Aronofsky’s career has been a study in taking risks. None of his films have been really conventional and he deserves credit for having the balls to go there when most probably wouldn’t. I enjoyed mother! for its artistic merit and on that alone, I’m recommending to those who appreciate that sort of thing. As for everyone else, I can’t tell you to spend your hard earned money on it because I have a gut feeling you’ll feel like the masses and be immediately turned off. Perhaps put that money into seeing Kingsman: The Golden Circle this weekend and saving mother! as a safe bet from the comfort of your own home.
Reel Talk gives mother! 3 Reels