Darren Aronofsky can perhaps be most appropriately described as a polarising director. His films are often of such an extreme and filthy aesthetic that as an audience member you’ll either stare in awe or well, puke up your popcorn. His films often operate in the realm of tragic narratives detailing the darker aspects of the human psyche. His films can be considered a study into what makes us human (mostly our weaknesses) and how often-invisible emotions can be represented and communicated on screen. With Requiem for a Dream he depicted the vice like grip of addiction and dependency; Black Swan portrayed the dangers of obsession and ambition; and The Wrestler dealt with regret and the consequences of sacrificing everything for your craft. Mother! represents an evolution for Aronofsky as he throws everything he has at the canvas in what becomes a fascinating look at humanity as a whole.
Mother! is a bizarre oddity to behold. The viewing experience is tense to say the least and for many may prove too stress-inducing but this is all part of the plan for Aronofsky. It is only when you step away and digest that the filmmaker’s intent begins to take shape. The film focuses on a nameless married couple (played by a porcelain Jennifer Lawrence and an always on-point Javier Bardem) who live in a large period house seemingly in the middle of nowhere. When a strange couple ends up at their door the fractures begin to appear in the leads’ relationship. What follows is a surreal dive into chaos, rich allegory and an utterly infuriating (for both character and audience) experience.
The film crawls under your skin with characters behaving in a way that is at once relatably infuriating whilst also becoming increasingly more unnatural and surreal. This is a merit to Aronofsky’s script, which gradually descends from meditated character study into a visceral and metaphorical nightmare. It is clear from the start that it’s not just a straightforward story about a couple’s fragile marriage and there is certainly a lot to interpret from Aronofsky’s plot but this does not take away from the story, which moves at an appropriately spiralling pace as the seeds of a bigger story begin to be placed.
Helping to keep the viewer engaged (despite Aronofsky creating what seems like an intentionally off-putting narrative) is the performances of everyone involved. Lawrence is perfect as the much younger wife of Bardem’s writer’s-block-suffering husband. Her performance is central to the film – as her situation begins to slip manically out of her control she embodies a desperation we can all relate to. Her meek vulnerability only elevates her situation to increasingly uncomfortable levels. Bardem too shines as a man so focused on creating something perfect he becomes blind to the chaos closing in on them. Perhaps having the most fun is Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris who both do wondrous jobs of coming off as the most annoying house guests in movie history.
Aronofsky does great work utilising a score compiled of uncomfortable sounds and piercing noises, often seeming like they don’t even belong to the film, which adds to the discomfort the film creates. The visuals too are something to admire. DoP Matthew Libatique’s use of perspective shots and grainy aesthetics provide the perfect platform for the mania to unfold. Aronofsky has certainly taken a risk with what he chooses to show and what he chooses to hide: in short, he does not hold back. The film’s imagery is brutal and won’t be for everyone but it allows his message to pack a punch.
Mother! has divided audiences so far and it is easy to see why. Aronofsky insists on bundling in many messages to the plot that it is a struggle to keep up. The experience of watching the film itself is a tough one but this is the point. The title of the film may hint at some of the director’s intent: this is a film with an environmental message, Lawrence’s “mother’ is mother earth who is continually abused and ignored whilst all she does is give and give. The film also bares resemblance to biblical stories and the story of creation itself. Whilst these links are not always clear when watching the film, and admittedly not much is when the plot is so distracting and visceral, but after a few hours have passed and the film is given a retrospective look things begin to become clearer and Aronofsky’s intent can be fully appreciated. This is a one of a kind film made by a man truly at the top of his game, and it seems, given the director’s oeuvre, that this is where his career has always been leading to. It won’t be for everyone but for some it may be a beacon of originality in a sea of familiarity.