There aren’t that many films that make you take a serious look at the medium itself, and in that respect Mother! is some sort of accomplishment. Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to messing with the boundaries and potential of both film and storytelling, but letting pure daring run wild is a method that is bound to result in hits and misses. For every Black Swan, you’re going to get a Noah or The Fountain.
In Mother!, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a house that she is rebuilding after it was destroyed by fire. It’s the house where Him (Javier Bardem) grew up, and Mother is just trying to make things nice so that the couple can have an idyllic life in the midst of their field of green. Him is a writer suffering from blank page syndrome, and when his fans show up he has trouble not succumbing to the attention, even as said fans disrespect his house and wife.
It’s already impossible to talk about what happens as though there is actual text that the sub-text would be subordinate to, because there isn’t any. While Aronofsky may speak frequently about the allegory/metaphor of the story, it’s only because he isn’t absolutely clear how either of the devices work.
The movie plays out looking for all the world like someone is following Lawrence around a house with an iPhone camera, using forced perspective and whipping the camera around, apparently because creaking floorboards are what’s scary now and quick pans are the new lens flares. Him is largely disinterested in Mother at the best of times, though he’ll talk up his love frequently, and Mother is intent on the unending task of repairing a house/world that somehow isn’t quite hers. Him is constantly disappearing, especially when Mother might need him for something, or if anyone wants to tell him how cool he is. Of course, this is all because God’s a bastard and Mother Nature is just trying to quietly do her loving work… apparently.
Once Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up, Him can hardly become more devoted to their attention. Man, though a sickly sort, is a jovial, old chap, and Woman is a sneaky bitch who seems poised to jab Mother in the eye with a stick at any moment.
Mother comes to feel increasingly out of place in her own home, and abandoned by Him as more and more of these “people” show up. As if that weren’t enough, the house has blood stains that won’t go away, a secret stash of oil heating it, and people keep mocking Mother’s assertions that it’s her house as though she had recently appeared from a mental ward.
Odd as this all sounds, in terms of the story, there has never been a movie so bleak and devoid of positive note that appeared to have such solid acting. It becomes its own curiosity, because Javier Bardem may well be doing brilliant work here, and Lawrence is certainly solid as well, it’s just that what’s being asked of them is so ludicrous that it’s difficult to figure out if it matters. Ed Harris, who is not an actor that needs to defend his abilities, becomes rather laughable during key moments, but because he’s apparently doing a perfect job.
At a certain point, the long crawl of discovery becomes a mad dash through madness and the events of the film become, clearly, purposefully chaotic and nearly indiscernible. It all comes together in what amounts to a wild misunderstanding of story construction and film craft. The story is pieced together, not with an intent or underlying purpose, but as an amalgamation of efforts tailored to responses that seemed to meet with approval in the past. Philosophy, for example, that people have long viewed positively is confusing as hell, so if you just write something no one can understand (ala Hegel), that must mean its absolutely genius.
Also, since many respected films seem to deliver their stories with complex calls to theme and motif, and are in fact somewhat confusing, he’s decided to affix symbolism to every inch on the screen and spun a convoluted story around itself until bits of the Bible show up without purpose, except insofar as we can point to them and say, “Oooo look, that’s in the Bible.” Moreover, because the greatest stories ever told can often ultimately be boiled down to a one-sentence “point,” Aronofsky figures that any fortune cookie platitude is as great a story as anything else. Where that’s really gone wrong here is that while the true content of those other stories might amount to 1,000 pages, Aronofsky’s goofy fist-shaking is all you get here, and he’s taking 120 minutes to do it at you.
But, even a kind of crazed, largely nonsensical effort might make for a decent enough film if we dissected it in an entertaining or moving way, but Mother! is so bizarrely obvious in its display of what it thinks is sub-text, and so amateurish in its effort at tension and emotion that it’s simply boring. It’s a film, and story, that spends all its time hoping it can lure you into wanting to see what’s behind the curtain that turns out to only have been the story of the curtain.
Worst of all, the film is pretention almost become spectator sport, reveling in its own ability to condescend to its audience in new and exciting ways. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Professor with patches on his elbows rolling his eyes and sighing because he’s forced to talk to “people” who have no hope of understanding what he’s about to say, and then saying something everyone already knew.
The real key to understanding the depth of loss in Mother! is simply that if it played with a leader card that read, “This movie is only intended to make fun of pretentious, megalomaniac filmmakers,” it would have instantly become the best film ever made.
Had this exact film been made by someone whose name you didn’t know, populated by the world’s greatest actors who were unknowns, it wouldn’t simply have been rated more universally poorly, it would have been at the bottom of the pile of the thousand other releases this year you’ll never hear about.