"It's a cinematic endurance, but one worth committing to if you're brave and willing."
by Steve Pulaski
Darren Aronofsky's mother! has been billed as the most creatively ambitious movie to be released by a mainstream studio since Eyes Wide Shut following Stanley Kubrick's death. The only reason that comparison angers me is because I didn't come up with it.
I was stunned to see Aronofsky's latest since Noah be given a 3,000-theater release only mere days after its respective screenings at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. This is the kind of film, like Tusk or even going back Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, that probably belongs in considerably less theaters, for this has all the makings of a movie that is going to confuse or piss a lot of people off. If the public couldn't grasp the dark depths and psychological undertones of this year's exquisite It Comes at Night, I highly doubt mother! will be able to do anything worthwhile for them.
But the brave and open-minded moviegoer need not take that warning to heart. If you can appreciate it, this is a terrifying and unsettling piece of filmmaking, complete with yet another visceral performance by Jennifer Lawrence, in which she transcends her age and experience by making you forget how young she really is. Lawrence, 27, immerses herself in a role you feel is close to home for her and her not-so-distant, non-consensual thrust in the public eye thanks to leaked photos, captured thrillingly in a movie many viewers won't soon forget thanks to its graphic and hypnotic nature.
The film revolves around an unnamed couple (Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence) residing in a lavish home in the middle of nowhere, which she continues to renovate room-by-room as he, a renowned poet, grapples with writer's block. Strange, blood-soaked floor-boards and disturbing imagery unsettle her greatly until she's taken by surprise at the arrival of a man (Ed Harris) with a heavy smoker's cough in search of a bed and breakfast. Being the friendly socialite he is, Bardem has no problem allowing him to spend the night in their home, until his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) arrives, and then eventually their kids, making themselves at home and intruding on their private space much to the dismay of a stressed and overwhelmed Lawrence.
Another rendition of Lawrence's generic and lame thriller House at the End of the Street this isn't; things escalate to worrying and flat-out dangerous levels when Bardem begins writing again following the first time him and his wife have had sex in years. He lets loyal readers and fans enter the home, to which they respond by doing unthinkable things that make the two previous strangers look like noble company.
Lawrence astonishes with a thankless role that shows the advantage the common artist takes of a woman, who, in this case, is no more than a prized possession to her husband. At times, there's reason to believe her value is markedly less than the shiny, crystallized stone which her husband obsesses over, keeping it on his dresser for display. Capping off Bardem's repeated neglect of his wife's needs and demands is him soon going as far as to gaslight her when things become increasingly uncontrollable or troubling - case and point, when she awakes to their initial house-guest vomiting blood and exhibiting traits suggesting he is seriously ill.
Bardem too is a fierce leader on-screen, playing a man who loves to be loved and craves attention. It fuels the thought that his main need out of life is to be desired and praised for his accomplishments. The primary reward he gets out of being surrounded by strangers giving him acclaim whilst consumed in the worst tendencies of obsessive fandom drive his abused and helpless wife to consumption by the impulsive needs and demands of total strangers.
Aronofsky places us in a position that commits to remaining centered on Lawrence's point-of-view, which in turn makes us feel as helpless as her, especially the more delirious and twisted things become. mother! is essentially a boxing match in which Aronofsky and his right-hand, career-cinematographer Matthew Libatique pummel us with bright-red images of hell and brimstone so vivid and dense they'd make Sam Raimi squirm in his seat. By giving us a character as powerless as Lawrence, we also get the feeling of what it's like to be entirely ignored, left to your own (lack of) defenses against physical and violent people while her husband indulges in the pleasures of the danger and gathering all in his name.
mother! challenges the viewer by putting them in a position it's right to assume most people have never been in over the course of their lives - particularly men. It reminds of Beatriz at Dinner in some sense, despite that film being a far more formal, fish-out-of-water exercise that didn't turn bloody nor as surreal as this skillful work. While some of Aronofsky's ostensible symbolism and details showcased throughout the house fizzle in terms of weight - assuming they're supposed to carry more depth than surface-level visual inclusions - the main meat of mother! comes in the form of watching Lawrence commit to another grueling, challenging performance and a subtext made more compelling thanks to a rare feministic edge. It's a cinematic endurance, but one worth committing to if you're brave and willing.
Steve's Grade: B