During one of a string of interviews offered in the months leading up to the release of mother!, director/writer Darren Aronofsky said (and I paraphrase) that the screenplay coalesced over the course of five days or so. This morsel of trivia provides more insight into the finished product than any new exegesis or plot-unpacking could offer at this point. Aronofsky’s latest clawed into theaters a few weeks ago and people have been entranced — mostly, if Twitter’s any indication, by either a sense of indignation or slack-jawed awe. There doesn’t seem to be much room for equivocating the matter. Fans offer the film ardent praise or evisceration.
Part of what people are reacting to is the film’s rawness, its frenzy, its heart-on-the-sleeve effort to provide a glimpse of cinema devoid of basic commercial appeal. The film is about as subtle as the glow of a Molotov cocktail cast against a riot shield. By that measure alone, mother! is easily the most refreshing film of the season (if one of the least palatable). Aronofsky’s interpretation of the Bible is as facile as it is to-the-point.
From the start, there is a sense of unease. The film opens with Him (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) placing a crystal sculpture on a small base which then rejuvenates a burnt out house, landscape and sleeping Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games), whose character is listed in the credits as the eponymous “mother.” Lawrence’s mother passes the time in the bucolic “paradise” by fixing up the joint before being disturbed by the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of a doctor and his wife. This arrival precipitates others until the house resembles less a human abode than a cannibalistic ant hill swarming with folks desperate for a fix of Truth from Him –– their idol. Events plod along roughly lock-step with the Pentateuch until the story ventures into its surreal and unrelenting final movement.
The finer details hinder the film’s progress from intriguing exercise to full-fledged masterpiece. For example, the shoddily applied attempts at mother’s POV. The jump scares at her expense — littered throughout the film — are a travesty. Each iteration of the device repeat the notes of its predecessor without innovation or evolution of the thought which, at its heart, is that some greater or larger force is controlling and possibly out to get mother. This seems so out of character for Aronofsky considering the tenderness injected into the body horror elements of Requiem for a Dream and the deft paranoia underscoring his magnificent Black Swan. Of course, the latter is much more of a genre film than mother!, so it’s all the more confusing that the mode was so consistently and haphazardly applied.
Overall, the concept feels underdeveloped. The best definition of art that I’ve yet come across is (and I paraphrase again) the implementation of an idea which has been thought about from every possible approach. It’s fair to proclaim that mother! falls short of this standard. The first half is bloated. The second half is initially dazzling but ultimately lives in the hinterlands between enigmatic and incomprehensible. Truly, I would have paid an IMAX-like or 3D-like surcharge for a mother! where the finale had a couple additional establishing shots. It’s another example of the faulty application of a technique to put viewers in her shoes. The closing goes from one close-up to another until the final revelation.
Flatly, the intimacy between Him and mother feels too forced to support her sustained devotion. If she is so unhappy, and feels so starved of love, why would she not run from the house earlier when it’s clear he cares more for the destructive guests than his own supposedly beloved wife? In a film that’s more surreal, or more of any number of the competing elements which mother! incorporates, these kind of nonsensical character beats might seem less like an atavism of some half-baked brainstorm. The film feels like a nightmare, but more like one that’s half-remembered months later when you’re less certain about what happened. The febrile claustrophobia which Aronofsky uncovered in those five days of writing created a movie that feels more like a really cool draft than a finished product. It’s easy enough to say on my part — he actually went out and made a movie, and I’m shirtless at my computer while my dog is farting nearby –– but even the film’s supporters typically admit numerous faults. The spirit behind the film envisioned something grand, but just like its own poet-antagonist, the creator botched the execution.
If mother! lacks the refinement of a manifesto for a new breed of movie theater flick, it makes up for it in the audacity to be unique. There is no other film like mother! in theaters and it’s possible there won’t be for a very long time. While I obviously don’t have the most sterling opinion about it, there are some great pieces emerging online that variously make equally valid points toward complete brilliance and abject ineptitude. If there is one component to mother! that’s indisputably genius, it’s that Aronofsky made a film that people can’t stop talking about.
Clayton Schuster (@SchusterClayton) is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He bleeds words about arts and culture for Vague Visages, Hyperallergic, Hi-Frictose, Midnight Pulse and other outlets. He is also a screenwriter for Lunaventure Productions and has a book on art feuds out in 2018 with Schiffer Publications. If he’s not reading or writing, then chances are he’s being bullied around by his Formosan Mountain Dog named Willow.