mother! (2017)

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Note: the characters in this film are purposely never referred to by name, and are listed on IMDB in the following manner. There is a reason for this, which I’ll get into later:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as mother
  • Javier Bardem as Him
  • Ed Harris as man
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as woman

Ok.

This film is very difficult to describe. There are multiple interpretations of mother! out there and it’s causing a polarizing reaction among critics and audiences alike. There WILL be some spoilers in this review. I apologize in advance; I wanted to include a completely spoiler-free review before a did a more in-depth look at mother! but found myself unable to broach the film’s subject matter without getting into the nitty-gritty aspects of it.

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Him (Javier Bardem) is a gifted poet who lives in an isolated rural house with his much younger wife, known only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). Mother works to renovate the house while Him suffers from writers’ block; they are outwardly affectionate towards each other, but have a strange relationship dynamic. Him is naturally sociable and charming, but it’s implied that he has suffered from traumatic events in his past and comes across as emotionally distant towards his wife. Meanwhile, Mother is young and timid, and while she loves Him, she struggles to reveal her true thoughts and feelings due to the demanding nature of his work. We see that Mother also occasionally has disorienting, vertigo-like episodes and that the house itself is sentient and has a personality of its own (yes, even a beating heart).

One day, the couple’s tranquil existence is disrupted by a Man (Ed Harris). Man is a doctor and researcher who has greatly admired Him’s writings, but his unannounced arrival — as well as Him’s lack of suspicion towards his mysteriousness — alarms Mother. Soon enough, Harris’s wife, Woman, (Michelle Pfeiffer) also shows up. There’s plenty of awkward interaction as Woman begins to trouble Lawrence with nosy questions and help herself to a tour of the house. Again, Mother and Him’s lack of communication with each other causes notable tension.

It’s soon revealed that Man is dying of an unknown disease. He and Woman have two sons, and a traumatic and violent incident occurs involving the two of them and their father’s will. This results in the younger son being bludgeoned. Him follows the family to the hospital, but the younger son dies regardless. As Mother cleans up the bloody crime scene, she notices a spot on the wood floor that continues to bleed, dripping down to the house’s basement.

This violent incident drives a further wedge being driven between Him and Mother. After a wake for the son in which more uninvited guests arrive, Mother eventually confronts Him about it and voices her frustrations about the lack of communication in their relationship. It’s also becoming increasingly apparent by how many people hold Him in such esteem, even to the point of harassing Mother, being rude to her, and becoming violently obsessed with Him’s work. Mother becomes angry with Him, but they eventually make up and have sex, which results in Mother’s pregnancy.

Happy for his growing family, Him finally gets new inspiration to write. He finishes the piece in record time over the next few months, and both he and Mother begin to be contented again. However, when Him’s new poem is released, he begins to get more and more obsessed fans arriving at the house, who become violent and push a pregnant Mother to the edge of her own sanity.

This film is insane. I didn’t know much about it until I saw it recently, only that it drew a sharply divided response from critics and audiences and was full of metaphor and allegory. Mother! is the brainchild of acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, who has frequently blended violence, harrowing drama, and surrealism into his previous films, most notably Black Swan, Pi, Noah, The Fountain, and Requiem for a Dream. He’s someone that I greatly respect due to his daring artistic visions and willingness to push stylistic boundaries. You never forget an Aronofsky film once you’ve seen it.

The insane part of the film is primarily due to the violent climax in the last third of the movie, but mother! builds a coherent and visceral atmosphere right off the bat. Lots of the early parts of the film follow Mother around the massive house, and you get a real sense of the scope, age, and isolation of the place. The cinematography and sound design are both outstanding, the latter of which is key, because mother! has very little in terms of a traditional musical score. Therefore, the sound of the film becomes extremely important in establishing the tone.

Alas, tone is what can sometimes make mother! a jarring and disorienting experience. I get that it’s a psychological horror film with heavy allegorical meaning, but some of the tonal shifts from scene to scene — most notably about halfway through the movie — weren’t done super well. At the same time, I feel like that the unsettling effect of the tonal shifts were kind of the point — after all, I would agree that this is a film that must be experienced, not simply watched. Nonetheless, I recognize that it’s sometimes strange to go from surreal religious symbolism to domestic drama to psychological horror and back again. This is probably one of the reasons as to why most audiences found mother! a difficult film to watch.

The acting and directing are as good as any you’ll see all year. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in particular are outstanding; Lawrence might have just given us the performance of her career, and that’s saying something.

The film has been described as a Biblical allegory by both Aronofsky and Lawrence, and this becomes very apparent as the film goes on. Bardem — as Him — is essentially playing a version of God, albeit a deity that’s not entirely consistent with one particular religion. Him is universally admired and some of his followers do, in fact, take it too far and do horrible things to please Him. Lawrence echoed some similar sentiments in a recent interview as well — that Bardem represents a deity, but not any particular religion.

(Worth mentioning: Aronofsky previously directed the Biblical epic Noah in 2014. While he admits to a spiritual side, Aronofsky has said that he has a complex relationship with religion and was raised culturally Jewish in his hometown of Brooklyn.)

Harris and Pfeiffer represent Adam and Eve, and you’ll pick up on some related symbolism along the way. The brothers fighting and one killing the other is obviously a Cain and Abel reference, Lawrence’s character is an embodiment of Mother Earth, while the house is the Garden of Eden (this is explored by Mother giving life to a literal child as well as sustaining the house through its many incarnations).

***WARNING: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD***

Speaking of Mother Earth, there were some reviewers that believed that the latter half of the film — in which Him’s obsessed fans ruin the house and drive Mother to her breaking point — as being a metaphor for environmentalism. You could certainly draw this parallel, but the religious symbolism is much stronger and more pervasive throughout the movie.

In my opinion, the symbolism of the bleeding floorboards of the house has two meanings: physical and spiritual. The house’s bleeding stops when Mother is pregnant, suggesting both the physical differences (menstruation vs. pregnancy) and how Mother is happier knowing that she’s bringing a new life into the world, as opposed to earlier, when she felt emotionally distant from Him and lacked joy in her life.

There was some controversy related to Aronofsky’s intentions with this film. The director wrote the entire script at an astonishing pace — five days, in fact — and said he wanted the movie to have a dreamlike quality to it. Some critics complained that the film’s themes and poster bore an uncanny resemblance to horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. Other people didn’t like the violence in mother! or found it too intellectually dense to comprehend, dismissing it as silly or pretentious.

I disagree; I found mother! to be extremely engaging, visually and technically spectacular, and very well-acted. Some might find it too ambitious or disturbing, and some will love the meaning of the film and draw philosophical and spiritual messages from it. Just like my favorite Aronofsky film, Requiem for a DreamMother! is harrowing and intense at times, and isn’t exactly something I’d recommend to everyone. However, I know this film has a real meaning to it and will definitely merit repeat viewings eventually.

Grade: A-

  • Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, and Ari Handel
  • Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
  • Edited by Andrew Wiesblum
  • Starring Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
  • Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.
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