A deeply unsettling psychological thriller that defies expectation.
September 14, 2017
To watch mother! is to watch Jennifer Lawrence's housewife protagonist, and to see the world through her eyes. As she remains confined to her sprawling country abode, which she's restoring for her poet husband (Javier Bardem), the camera remains largely fixed on either her face or her perspective. When she awakens to an empty bed, the film looks on. When outward politeness masks internal horror following the arrival of an unexpected guest (Ed Harris), viewers switch between witnessing her dismay and sharing her cautious gaze. Her despair heightens further when the man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, followed by their feuding adult sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). And as her sense of anxiety grows, so too does writer-director Darren Aronofsky dive deeper and deeper into the character's inner turmoil.
The idea of a woman not quite coping with a change to her home life might sound fairly standard, even old-fashioned. Run-of-the-mill dramas, clichéd comedies and scary flicks have been there and done that before. But mother! doesn't fit into those categories. It's not your usual unwanted visitor tale. Nor is it the Rosemary's Baby riff that's hinted at during its ominous first half. Never one to colour within the filmmaking lines (see Black Swan, Noah and Requiem for a Dream), with mother! Aronofsky serves up his boldest work to date – an ambitious, unnerving, immersive exercise that defies all sense of expectation.
From walls that beat like a heart when they're touched, to a freewheeling third act that has to be seen to be believed, mother! is a movie driven by emotions and experiences. Lawrence's unnamed figure reacts to the ups and downs of her existence, and the film responds in turn. As destruction grows, life-changing decisions are made, and one woman's wants and needs are routinely ignored, it's not so much what happens that really matters. Rather, what's crucial is how it all makes the protagonist feel, and how Aronofsky aligns the audience with her mindset.
Disgust, fear, frustration and sadness provide the film its palette, layered on top of its distinctive grey-hued colour scheme. Likewise, in a movie without music, the silence of hurt, confusion, neglect, betrayal and disappointment takes the place of a conventional soundtrack. There's no evading anything that Aronofsky throws at his viewers, as he makes it almost impossible to hold onto one's bearings. With the lens trained on Lawrence in close up for more than half of the movie's running time, the sense that you can't grasp onto anything else is clearly by design. She's the fraying canvas that all these swirling sensations converge upon — and, amidst the inescapable chaos, she plays her part to near-perfection
And still the question remains: what exactly is mother!? Ultimately, there are many answers. At its most basic level, it's a tense psychological thriller built on domestic and social unease, spiralling into the disorder caused by humanity's worst urges, and touching upon everything from biblical parallels to a savage reflection of our current cutthroat society. It's also an exploration of a woman forced to ponder her place and purpose, with Lawrence's central character saddled with the duties of the caring, supportive, devoted spouse as Bardem's writer gets increasingly enamoured with his own fame. Indeed, in a movie that stays intimate in its focus but universal in its escalating mayhem, Aronofsky applies that line of thinking to all women subjected to the control and demands of men – a thematic fascination seen in many of his earlier films.
On top of all of that, mother! is a fever dream of a cinema experience, audacious and utterly unique. Be warned: you'll either love it or hate it. We fall gleefully into the first category.
Image: Paramount Pictures
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