Throughout the history of film, there have been all sorts of directors, each with their own sets of goals. Some are in it for the money; like effective managers, they run tight ships, and routinely bolster ticket sales. Some are in it for the art; they slave over the minutest of details, and are routinely showered with praise. Some, however, are titillated by the mere notion of provoking inflammatory response. In 1929, you had Luis Buñuel, who was devastated when he incited cheers over riots. Today, you have Darren Aronofsky, who would gladly demand your hatred over apathy.
“All I want in my life is for people to either cheer or boo. I just don’t want anything in the middle,”* Aronofosky reportedly told his father in 1998, just before the premiere of Pi, the director’s lauded debut. The filmmaker went on to craft the horrific, yet superb Requiem for a Dream, then The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan; his dark and sophisticated masterpiece that won Natalie Portman her first Oscar. Aronofsky’s last feature was 2014’s bold, yet bizarre Noah, in which he didn’t break a sweat enraging religious communities worldwide.
In Aronofsky’s latest film, the brilliant, yet often misguided virtuoso begets his most outlandish offering yet. mother! is audacious, engrossing, disturbing, and incredibly difficult to nail down. And in true Aronofsky fashion – it will provoke polarized response. How mother! differs from his past work is that it aims more so to arouse discussion on the film itself rather than on any particular subject. Whether that can be considered art could be debated, but while Aronofsky clearly revels in tormenting his audience, mother!’s singular vision is not to be missed.
Before crafting his most shocking entry thus far, Aronofsky was actually hoping to shape a children’s film inspired by growing up in Brooklyn. But, as he puts it, “he couldn’t break it,” and immediately shifted to penning the script for this fanciful horror show in the break-neck speed of five days. Before filming on mother! commenced, Aronofsky and his cast spent three months rehearsing in a warehouse to get a sense of the characters and experiment with shooting. The unorthodox production paid off with some truly remarkable performances and cinematography.
mother! centers on a nameless woman abiding in a non-literal, dreamlike narrative setting. Jennifer Lawrence definitively carries the film, dictating the audience’s every response as she navigates her surreal environment. The character lives a picturesque existence in a rustic old home in isolated tranquility. Her husband (Javier Bardem) is a refined poet battling writer’s block. To stir inspiration, he begins inviting guests into their home, who then multiply, and quickly begin to disrupt his wife’s comfort state. Things get weirder – I’ll let you see for yourself.
For fear of robbing you of experiencing this descent into nightmare on your own, I hate to say much more, though I want to stress the film’s artistic merits for those still on the fence. Aronofsky’s twisted fable offers much more than surreal abstraction – the tale exists in a meticulously designed bubble of inexact metaphor. Aronofsky’s cyclical perspective of reality is thoroughly symmetrical, and rife with symbolism and references to religion and culture. Is it a Biblical allegory? An environmental cautionary tale? That’s for you – the viewer, to decide.
In addition, the film is an agonizing catharsis: an unflinching descent into despair, madness, and terror, and it couldn’t have been achieved without a first-rate cast. Jennifer Lawrence stuns in a performance that demands Oscar attention, ferrying Aronofsky’s vision to reality as she transports the viewer through a spectrum of agitation and rage. As the husband, Javier Bardem serves as the dream’s antithesis through deceptive warmth and compassion. Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kristen Wiig, among others, comically ham it up as the home’s invasive guests.
It is often suggested that Aronofsky himself is represented throughout his work, creative choices that can be interpreted as either artistic vulnerability or plain arrogance, and mother! is no exception. Bardem’s poet is depicted as desperately longing for fame and adoration, at the expense of his wife and family. Is this Aronofsky? The director denies this, but spectators will be skeptical, especially considering he struck up a flame with Lawrence during shooting. The intensely demanding filmmaker reportedly ordered her to redo a scene after she dislocated a rib.
Stepping back into his home, closing the door on the frenzy of fans and media outside, Bardem’s poet gasps, with tears in his eyes, “They love it. It means so many things to so many different people.” There’s little doubt Aronofsky hopes to exact the same effect with mother!, at least among those who respond favorably to the film. However, it is hard to read as much more than a lucid work of reckless independence on Aronofsky’s part, albeit an unforgettable and fascinating one. mother! is no masterpiece, but it’s a staggering achievement of artistic vision all the same.