MOTHER! – Review
Darren Aronofsky’s new film MOTHER! is a nightmare of a movie, but it is intended to be. It is like going over a waterfall – sudden, terrifying, exhilarating, disorienting, an assault on the senses, but not what one would call fun. Still, if one survives, a few might want to do it again.
MOTHER! is not a film for everyone but it is a brilliantly made bit of cinema, filled with haunting images, moving performances and intellectually intriguing themes. Those who have seen Aronofsky’s films know that he can go dark and surreal – think of “Black Swan,” parts of “Requiem of a Dream.” This film takes you further down the rabbit hole – much further. It is sometimes like walking through a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, a landscape of symbolism. Some will be intrigued by that idea and others won’t but, regardless, it is a film that will stay with you.
MOTHER! (in the posters, the title is written in lowercase and always with an exclamation point) is like experiencing a nightmare. In dreams, as in this film, sometimes things seem ordinary and make sense, then they become surreal and strange. Sometimes you notice the strangeness while others in the dream do not. Symbolism is everywhere, and the line between what can happen in the waking world and what happens in dreams is ever-shifting. You might want to wake up but you can’t always. Sometimes it returns to the ordinary, sometimes it takes bizarre turns, but it tends to get stranger as it evolves. In BLACK SWAN, Aronofsky gave audiences an anchor in the real world by implying the dancer was descending into madness but in this film, the director gives no such safe haven. Like a vivid nightmare, it is not necessarily an experience you want but you might learn something when you wake up – or in this case, leave the theater.
MOTHER! is the kind of film that invites discussion and analysis, even between those who liked it and those who didn’t, the kind of film that stays with you and has layers upon layers of meaning to be peeled back. The symbolism and allegory exist on many levels, from the cosmic to the global to the personal. It is packed with Biblical references, commentary on fame and on obsessive artists, references to myth and archetypes, creation and destruction, the environment, and even, possibly, Aronofsky’s relationship with former lover Rachel Weisz. All these interpretations have been suggested for the film, and each can make a valid argument without excluding the others.
The film begins with a brief wordless sequence, in which time is reversed and a house destroyed by fire is restored to its pre-destruction state. In the restored Victorian house, a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) awakes and goes to look for her husband (Javier Bardem). He is a writer, older than her and apparently famous, who is working on his next project while she works on restoring the old house damaged by fire. Their life looks quiet and idyllic, a rural paradise. The house is surrounded by green grass and trees, with neither neighbors nor roads in sight. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a man (Ed Harris) turns up at their door, saying he had been told the house was a bed and breakfast. She wants to send him away, but her husband, who apparently had met him in town, invites him in. Her unease is heightened when his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as well, expecting to stay. Having opened the door to them, more people soon come in. What starts as a tense situation quickly escalates into nightmare.
That is a pedestrian description of a film that is anything but. However, further description won’t help; this surreal wild ride has to be experienced. The cast also includes Domhnall Gleeson, his brother Brian Gleeson (the play brothers in the film) and Kristen Wiig. The characters have no names, although later in the film Bardem’s character is call the Poet and Lawrence is called the Inspiration, and in the credits they are listed as “mother” and “him.” Who they are or what they represent is open to endless interpretation. The story is told mostly from the point of view of Jennifer Lawrence’s character. There are murders, brother against brother, fame and crazed fans, bizarre events, violence, love, betrayal, and birth. Given the title, there had to be at least one mother, but the title could easily mean Mother Earth or Mother Nature instead.
MOTHER is being presented as a horror film, and in a way, it is – certainly horrifying things happen. But it is a horror film for thinking people, for those with a taste for myth and symbolism, for puzzles that cry out to be unraveled. It is also a kind of ghost story, a feverish nightmare, a creepy psychological thriller, a mythic tale, and an allegory on many things including cost of fame, and maybe a symbolic cautionary tale on looming environmental danger. It is also a kind of retelling of creation. That is a lot for one film. Jennifer Lawrence, who is the writer/director’s girlfriend as well as the star of this film, has hinted at an environmental/Mother Nature interpretation, but there are several possible meanings for the film.
Where one likes the film or not, MOTHER certainly has the intellectual goods, and the artistic ones. Visually, the film is gorgeous, alternating between pleasing symmetry in the house, its graceful furnishing, and pleasant natural setting, and the dark, haunting Gothic nightmare images that invade. Aronofsky calls on all his skills to create that kind of world which he showed us in BLACK SWAN, and then takes it up a notch. The photography is excellent, special effects perfectly creepy, and pacing just right to keep us on edge. Although the story spins us around (as it does Lawrence’s character), one always is aware that the director, the story-teller, is in charge.
Jennifer Lawrence may well earn an Oscar for this performance. At the beginning of the film, she plays an un-demanding wife, deferring lovingly to the wishes of her older, famous husband. As he starts to allow people into their isolated little paradise, she objects gently at first. He seems able to leave for the larger world but she does not (is it agoraphobia, we might wonder) and wants to stay home. She is afraid of his crazed fans and he tells her he shares that concern, but then seems to bask in their adoration. The characters and their relationship evolves, or maybe is just revealed, throughout the film. Lawrence exudes a mix of sweetness and love, but with a sense of power underneath. She is a woman of many skills, renovating the old house on her own – plumbing to plastering – something she proudly proclaims at one point, but she acknowledges it is his house she is rebuilding. Lawrence’s luminous face often fills the screen, and feelings of doubt, love, fear, or confusion play across it. At times, we wonder if she is losing touch with reality. Bardem’s character is more opaque, more mysterious than Lawrence’s open one. There are repeated references to their age difference, and his fame (and his handling of that) looms over their home. She wants it to be just them, but Bardem is clearly drawn by the siren call of fans, energized by their praise even while aware there is danger. What his intentions are, his inner thoughts, are not clear until the film’s horrifying end.
The rest of the cast provides strong support. Ed Harris is a man who seems to be one thing but is revealed to be something else. His easy bond with Bardem’s character unsettles Lawrence, but it is the intrusive, demanding character played by Michelle Pfeiffer that is most upsetting, a woman who seems no boundaries. Other actors turn up and play out their dramas in her house, dramas which Lawrence’s character is powerless to stop.
Symbolism and allegory fill this film. Myth and the natural world touch in this film. Hexagons appear everywhere in the house, in the windows, doors, even the shape of the entry hall, and in the frame of a photo of Javier Bardem’s character that his adoring, crazed fans carry. It is a geometric shape common in nature (think honeycombs but also in soap bubbles), one that confer structural strength. There is a paradise lost theme, a cycle of life, history repeating, creation and destruction cycle underlying things. There are plenty of Biblical references but there are references to other religions and mythologies as well. One of the characters carries a lighter with a symbol on it, an ancient rune called a Wendehorn, a symbol from German history with links to the occult. The Wendehorn combines the symbols for life and death and represents a uniting of opposites like life and death, light and dark, order and chaos, good and evil. It also is associated with the Norse goddess Freyja, goddess of love, fertility, battle, and death – all of which are part of this film. Many religions have forces of creation and destruction, order and chaos, light and dark, themes about finding balance between them, which is part of physics too. There are themes of Nature versus Man, leading some viewers to read the events in the film as symbolizing the destruction of the natural world. These are just some of the elements present, there are plenty more to unearth.
Like a nightmare, there are times when it is hard to tell what is going on because the story is told from the point of view of Jennifer Lawrence. We know what she knows, the confusion is her confusion. The film unfolds like a bizarre clockwork, beautifully structured and folding back on itself in a brilliant way. Things are made more clear by the end, although nothing is spelled out.
Some film-goers feel that movies should entertain and that if they strive to be art, they are breaking the rules somehow. Others are open to wider view, that film can be art too. MOTHER is not a non-narrative film, it has a plot and story but it is the kind of story you find in myths, fairy tales and fantasy, one filled with allegory. Those who like a smart, artistic film where not everything is clearly spelled out or even grounded in everyday reality, will relish this film, even if the experience cannot be called “fun.” But then again, what is it that draws people to scary movies, to roller coasters and risky thrills?
If all that complexity sounds intriguing, then MOTHER! is a trip you want to take. It is not for everyone, and plenty of people will hate it, but even then most will have to admit its a brilliantly built bit of cinema.