Mother! and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
I’ve never really been a fan of David Fincher, yet I’ve very much appreciated Aronofsky despite them sharing quite a few similarities; mostly in regards to just how dark and cynical they can be when it comes to their subject matter. I guess Aronofsky still manages to CARE about his characters even when they’re terrible people or getting mercilessly destroyed which is something that feels absent from a lot of Fincher’s work like Fight Club or Gone Girl; both are about terrible people but never seem to get past simply PRESENTING us with their unpleasantness. Aronofsky’s different, especially with movies like The Wrestler and Black Swan which are straight up tragedies about broken people trying desperately to get their lives together and failing miserably in the process. Now we have Mother! which, aside from the gratuitous punctuation, seems to be in the same vein though leaning much more on horror tropes and absurd excess than a more focused psychological horror narrative and seems to be in the same vein as Noah (another one of his movies that I like) at least as far as just how far he’s willing to take the strangeness of it all. Is this another classic to add to his already impressive catalogue, or has he made his biggest misstep since The Fountain? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with a HUGE spoiler, but AFTER that we follow around a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her husband (Javier Bardem) in a REALLY nice house that is in desperate need of repair, but at least it gives Jennifer Lawrence something to do while FAMED POET JAVIER BARDEM putters around not writing anything. Still, she seems perfectly content with her day to day life of fixing the place up and making it look more hospitable… but everything changes once some guy and his wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up at their doorstep and Bardem is MORE than happy to offer their house, their food, and their personal space to the couple with no consultation from Jennifer Lawrence. Things escalate from there, but in ways I’d rather not spoil as the movie goes place you really couldn’t imagine from the trailers which sell this as a much different film. Does Jennifer Lawrence find a way to assert herself and regain control of what is hers? What is Javier Bardem’s deal with letting these people come in in the first place, and what ulterior motives do they have? No seriously, Aronfosky. What the fuck did you do here?
AS I said, I normally LOVE Aronofsky’s work but this is the one that broke me. I hate this movie and I don’t care how DEEP everyone says it is or how great the acting is. The movie has ONE thing going for it which is its uncanny ability to induce stress, but even THAT is ruined by the end of the movie where it just doesn’t know where to stop and squanders the minute amount of goodwill I was holding out for in this movie. What is this movie about? Who is Jennifer Lawrence besides an introverted housewife? What possible explanation could there be for the ridiculousness we end up seeing on screen as well as the dark and dismal imagery associated with it? Apparently if you want to know the answer to THOSE questions, you’re asking for FAR too much as this movie has no time for characters, believable motivations, or even humanity in general. Some people are gonna love this and will understand what Aronofsky was going for, but I’ve got to be straight and say that the emperor has no clothes on this one. Whatever ideas Aronofsky was trying to get across, he didn’t have to do so in such an insufferable, detestable, and rather boring way.
There are a few movies that this calls to mind, lest you think I’m simply raging at this film for doing something different. There are some obvious allusions to Rosemary’s Baby as the poster (and even the title) makes clear, but you’ve got a fair bit of Eraserhead’s horrifying view of parenthood, Black Swan’s uncomfortably tight focus, and even Jim Henson’s The Cube with regards to the way our main character exists in a world that barely registers them. The problem is that you’re better off watching any of those movies as the combination here is not even close to the sum of its parts. Eraserhead was much more bone chilling and visually interesting than anything they do in here, Black Swan had a protagonist that actually felt three dimensional and sympathetic beyond the barest sense of human decency, and while the character’s actions in both this film and The Cube are equally futile, well at least the guy in The Cube was PROACTIVE and felt like he was making reasonable decisions regarding his own sense of self-preservation; something that Jennifer Lawrence is SEVERELY lacking in this. Still there’s something more fundamental here and that’s a sense of humanity which all of the above films have and this film feels obnoxiously absent of. No time is spent to getting to know Jennifer Lawrence’s character and we barely spend any time on her relationship with Javier Bardem, and even when we DO get that it’s not until we’re over halfway through the damn thing. The filmmakers seem to know this as all the actors have dehumanizing names in the credit (Mother, Him, Man, Woman, etc) but to what end I still don’t know. It certainly didn’t help me to ENJOY this film, not knowing who anyone was or what made them tick. I guess we get a pretty decent amount detail in regards to Javier Bardem as he likes to talk A LOT in this, but the film also purposefully makes him an enigma; the middle ground between Jennifer Lawrence and the madness that is invading the house.
It all basically rests on Jennifer Lawrence’s character for us to have any sort of connection to what’s going on, and I’ll give the film SOME credit in that most of the ideas and set pieces they have in this movie (particularly in the first half) are not bad ideas or poorly executed ones on their own, but because we are looking at this strictly through the eyes of such a boring and passive character as Jennifer Lawrence is in this, it feels like squandered potential. I just kept thinking throughout this that if they leaned on the comedic farce of all this by giving Jennifer Lawrence REALISTIC reactions, there would have been very little they needed to change (again, particularly in the first half) to make it all fit. Now I’ll try to be fair here and say that her performance DOES lend itself to the one REALLY great aspect of this movie which is its ability to create stress, and to build it up gracefully over time. If there’s ONE theme in this movie that I can genuinely discern, it’s somewhat of an extreme examination of the feeling of violation; the idea that you’re boundaries are being crossed and the limited amount of recourses available when that happens. The social contract between people on a peer to peer or group to group basis is often a hard thing to fight against, especially for those who don’t like confrontation while prizing their sense of privacy. When that contract is upended and rewritten, as displayed by the guests who show up to the house, it creates some truly stress inducing moments and made me squirm quite a bit without the use of gore, or even anything TRULY horrifying. Okay, for some I can imagine that even some of the more mundane invasions of personal space and boundaries in this movie will be hard to sit through if they’ve gone through similar situations, but they aren’t ratcheting up the orchestral stings or having people jump from behind corners to grab a quick scare. It’s simply a constant and ever escalating series of sleights and disrespect that at a certain point starts to feel inevitable which to me is rather frightening.
Okay, so I’ve been very back and forth on this movie throughout the review; praising its use of tension by way of pushing personal boundaries while railing against it for its lack of believable and engaging characters. I still stand by this movie being a damn near unwatchable mess, but let me try to parse this out a bit better. In the first half of the movie, we’re getting a solid escalation of tension which managed to hold my interest, but it was the ONLY thing to do so as the situations were only intense due to a sense of projecting (boy would I feel uncomfortable in that situation!) instead of a genuine sense of feeling for the characters. Jennifer Lawrence is simply not a character in her own right (someone we can get behind and root for) nor is she doing enough to serve as an effective self-insert audience avatar as so many of her choices in this feel like they’re there just to keep the plot going and would NEVER cross someone’s mind in a million years if they were in the same situation. There needs to be SOME form of justification (either in-universe rules or specific characterization) that can get the audience to sympathize with such contradictory decisions, but for me I just couldn’t see why she did half the things she ended up doing and it was weighing this movie down like a ton of bricks. That’s not even getting into the stuff that’s just not explained at all like Jennifer Lawrence’s mystery beverage, but in any case I was sitting through the first half waiting for whatever shoe the movie was going to drop and hoping that THAT would bring me completely on board with everything else going on. Sadly, once we get into the big explosive third act that escalates everything to eleven, the movie starts to fall completely apart and any goodwill I had quickly started to dissipate.
I’m not going into full blown spoilers here, but I HAVE to mention something that happens towards the end that truly solidified my feelings about this movie. There is a brief scene in here where Jennifer Lawrence is physically and sexually assaulted and as far as I could tell, it was completely apropos of nothing. Dude’s do not get beat up in movies like this. This kind of sexualized violence is all but EXCLUSIVE to women and the disturbing depiction of it here in that brief moment revels in it. It added nothing to a scene that was already jarringly horrific enough and feels one hundred percent gratuitous which is just sickening to think about, but then I guess that’s the whole point of this movie, right? It’s a game of escalation where the stress of the situation is constantly mounting and eventually reaches a tipping point that we go WELL beyond in the third act. There are moments in the third act that, had they been at least somewhat explained or expanded upon, could have REALLY turned this movie around. Instead, it’s the psychological horror equivalent of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, and almost none of it makes any damn sense. What were we building up to? I don’t know. There seems to be some sort of “answer” at the end, but damned if I understood it. What does the use of such grotesque imagery accomplish? Well, it’s EFFECTIVE if that was the goal, but I think that some of it (ESPECIALLY the sexual assault scene) could have been replaced with something less overt and tasteless had the characters been engaging enough so that something LESS on the nose would have had the same kind of impact. I try not to use this word too often, but this grab bag of random ideas and unexplained scenes puts this film squarely in the realm of pretentiousness; making a whole lot of noise for something that feels as shallow as a puddle. To then add insult to injury by depicting such a reprehensible act as sexual assault for the purposes of making the finale THAT much more “intense” was simply the final nail in the coffin and I knew that I hated this movie at that very moment. Fortunately it doesn’t go on for much longer after that, but I still could not wait for this piece of garbage to just end its miserable little tale.
Before anyone asks, I GET the religious symbolism at play here and the allegories being presented. I still stand by my statements about this film having nothing to say because metaphors do not equate meaning. You can throw as many references as you want and make parallels to other stories, but there’s no unifying theme BEHIND that other than using those stories as a framework for a story of escalating violence. If you can get behind that as a lot of people seem to, then you’ll enjoy this movie. I SHOULD have enjoyed this damn thing, but the first half felt anemic and the second act felt oppressive; leading to a movie that builds you up in the hopes of something better being around the corner, but ultimately disappoints in spectacular fashion. I guess I STILL recommend checking this out at some point because it IS such a divisive movie, but you don’t need to make the effort to go to a theater. If you haven’t seen IT, it’s SO much better than this movie. If you’ve already seen IT… well it’s STILL so much better than this movie and you should see it again.