Friday Flicks: mother!

Never has heavy-handed metaphor worked oh so well.

Darren Aronofsky’s new horror-drama mother! opens with a close up of a woman on fire, staring implacably out at the audience as the heat crackles around her face. After the flames recede, the loping cursive of the title emerges, punctuated by the swift, jaunty ding of an exclamation point being drawn.

Yes, this movie is not subtle. Yes, this movie is perverse. And yes, this movie is ardent, bewildering, vital and audacious, and you should probably stop reading this review and go see it right now.

Over the past two decades, Aronofsky has distinguished himself as a filmmaker of narrative, emotional, and stylistic extremes. Just glance at his body of work and you’ll find characters submerged in the relentlessness of their worst fears come to life: Ellen Burstyn’s amphetamine-addled Brooklyn mom battling loneliness, desire, and the world’s most menacing refrigerator in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream; Russell Crowe’s vision-addled Old Testament prophet staring down a grotesque doubling of himself amidst the carnivorous masses in 2014’s Noah.

Coupling an allegorical bluntness with a fervent, virtuosic filmmaking style, Aronofsky’s movies seemingly defy the conventional wisdom that redundancy and indiscretion are enemies of powerful, enjoyable, thought-provoking art.

In mother!, he has found a story, a style, and an immensely gifted cast capable of bearing the weight of his apocalyptic vision with just enough anxiety, humor, and chutzpah to leave the viewer dizzily inspired.

mother!  (2017)

mother! (2017)

The movie tells the story of Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem), a young wife and a once-great poet, living in isolation in the husband’s rural, Victorian childhood home. Lawrence’s wife spends her days in assiduous restoration of the three-story estate: spackling the walls, rebuilding the kitchen, watching gently but eagerly as her husband struggles through writer’s block.

Seemingly untouched by her distracted husband, Lawrence finds in the very architecture of the building a sympathetic body with sensations parallel to her own. When she breathes, the walls breathe too. When she hurts, the floorboards become porous with blood.

This somewhat uneasy domestic tranquility comes to a screeching halt when a consumptive doctor (Ed Harris) and his gregarious wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) unexpectedly show up at the couple’s doorstep.

Lawrence accommodates the strangers with some wariness, put off by their brash and forceful sociability. But when they refuse to leave, encouraged to stay on indefinitely by Bardem’s exhilaration with the company, Lawrence’s wariness goes through a few transformations of its own: from uncertainty to guilt, from jealousy to terror, from indignation to irrepressible rage.

What starts out as a quiet study of a reclusive couple expands gradually into a tense, mysterious four-person chamber piece, and then explodes abruptly into an orgy of violence, horror, and the darkest of satires. By the end of the movie’s two hours, this home is no longer a place for peace: it is a battlefield, an altar, a graveyard.

Aronofsky and Lawrence have been quite outspoken in the weeks since mother!’s release about how this contentious, allegorical film is a straightforward parable about climate change: humans intrude upon the sanctity of this planet with zeal, greed, and reckless exploitation, and shouldn’t be surprised when Mother Earth retaliates with self-destruction.

But one of the benefits of mother!’s broad metaphors and brash imagery is that audiences can clearly see that the movie on display is transparently not what its creators say it is; or, perhaps, not only what its creators intended it to be. 

It is a movie about the parasitic violence that artists inflict upon those they love and use. It is about the easy slippage from religious devotion to cultish fanaticism. It is about the violent suppression of women by men too selfish and oblivious to recognize the extent of their own harm.

And yet, the visceral impact of Aronofsky's filmmaking and the tour-de-force performance by Jennifer Lawrence provide a depth and complexity that seems almost intentionally absent from the story and its characters.

Nameless and without a backstory or distinguishing characteristics, Lawrence communicates the immense breadth and depth of her character through an incredibly expressive face: determined, breathless, surprised, afraid.

Considering just how frequently Aronofsky keeps the camera tight on Lawrence’s face, she becomes not just a surrogate for the audience in this strange, claustrophobic, allegorical world. She becomes emblematic of this world’s confinement, as well.

If Requiem for a Dream used rapid cuts and parallel editing to draw tragic and inevitable connections between its characters's fates, mother! does just the opposite: it stays put with Lawrence, no matter which way she roams. Following her backwards and forwards, across each room, the camera pans and zooms and refuses to let go, always ensuring that Lawrence is trapped in this house and that the audience is trapped with Lawrence.

Harris and Pfeiffer are perfectly cast as a couple insouciant with desire, convinced of their absolute right to the poet’s attention and to this home’s hospitality. Bardem as well plays the poet-husband as a mercurial presence in Lawrence’s eyes: at times gentle and naïve, reassuring and loving, threatening and fierce.

But this is Lawrence and Aronofsky’s movie, and the writer-director and his star are truly adept at shifting between drama, horror, satire, and gonzo while still preserving something that feels irreducibly human.

From the surreal drama of the first half to the spiraling chaos of the second, mother! on its surface bludgeons and bludgeons the audience with shocking images and straightforward metaphors. But when coupled with such filmmaking, acting, and storytelling prowess, what may in other movies seem like a weakness comes off instead like a bold provocation to make the audience think about what on earth they’re watching, and why they feel oh so strongly about it.