Review: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ Is a Whole Heck of a Lot
In my reviews here on Ye Olde Pajiba, I tend to go all-in on spoilers. There are a few reasons for that, but the big one is that TK and I have this lovely relationship where I goad him and he, in turn, assigns me crap movies to watch, and I don’t much give a hoot about spoiling the ending of the Charlie Sheen 9/11 movie or any one of umpteen shitty horror offerings. You’re not going to see them anyway, right? You just want to know what the collateral beauty really is.
I’m going to break from tradition and do my best not to spoil mother!. Because it’s good, first off, and I do genuinely think you should see it, and see it knowing as little about it as you possibly can. Secondly because… well, I can’t really tell you what mother!’s about because I don’t really know what mother!’s about.
That’s not quite accurate. When I say “I don’t know what mother!” is about, I mean that I couldn’t point to one throughline, one theme, one message, and say “this is what Darren Aronofsky is trying to get across.” Because mother! is not that movie. It’s not a puzzle box, designed to be decoded by the audience as Aronofsky smashes the pieces apart and puts them back together in a way that’s neat and clean. It’s more like an impressionist watercolor, the shades all running together. It has more in common with with a MOMA video installation than your average big-studio movie. I can see where the F CinemaScore comes from; if there ever was a movie that’s the opposite of a crowd-pleaser, it’s this. (Well, and the Charlie Sheen 9/11 movie.)
If that sounds navel gaze-y…. well, yeah. You’ve seen a Darren Aronofsky movie before, yeah? The dude’s highfalutin. But he’s also talented as hell.
Here, in very, very, very basic terms, is what mother! is about. (No spoilers - most of this was in all the trailers.) A poet husband (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live alone in a house, which she spends her days fixing up while he struggles through writer’s block. One day, a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up and stays the night; he’s followed, shortly thereafter, by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, a steely-eyed, darkly comic standout).
Then shit gets weird.
That’s all I’m going to tell you.
Shit gets weird.
But it doesn’t get weird in a way that you (probably) expect, based on what was in the trailers or what we, as audience-members, have come to expect from the cinematic arts in general. It doesn’t get weird in a way where you can anticipate what’s happening, where if you pay attention enough to tiny clues in the way people behave or what cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera focuses on, you can stay one step ahead of Aronofsky. (Programmed by media like The Prestige and Westworld, I tried, for a while, to “figure out” what was going on while I was watching mother!. Don’t bother. Just go with it.) You think you know what mother!’s about… up until you don’t. That happens several times. mother! is a metaphor for like twelve different things, among them: climate change, religion (a favorite subject of Aronofsky, from Pi to The Fountain to the religious symbolism-laden The Wrestler to, obviously Noah) and the difficulty of both the creative process and of having to live with someone engaged in that process. As much as I liked mother!, I would have liked a movie that’s Aronofsky’s ex Rachel Weisz watching mother! in real-time twice as much. In addition to everything else it is, mother! is a brutal self-own from Aronofsky, who has (intentionally, by all appearances) directed a movie that may as well be subtitled “Why Marrying Darren Aronofsky Is a Bad Idea.” I feel like the lights came up on this one, and Weisz turned to current beau Daniel Craig and said “See?!?!”
Ignore people telling you mother! is definitely about this or definitely about that—it’s about a lot of things. It’s a cinematic Magic Eye that defies easy reads or categorization. I can see that being frustrating, and certainly there’s a level of pretentiousness to it, but personally I adored the novelty of going into a big studio release in this day and age and having no clue, from minute to minute, where the story was going to go. But—and this is crucial—I never doubted for a moment that Aronofsky did. mother! achieves pitch-perfect consistency in terms of its tone, every aspect of the film seeming just a smidge off from the very first frame. (Until later on, when we’re talking more than just a smidge.) Aronofsky sustains a feeling of dread all the way through, making you feel like you’re in a nightmare fairy tale. mother! isn’t scary in a straightforward sense, but it’s still emotionally affecting—I didn’t know how much it had gotten to me until after I left the theatre, when I realized I was a little wobbly at the knees and needed to not be around people for a while.
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