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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: mother! (2017)

* * *

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem

If you follow entertainment news sites, you've heard that mother! earned the rare "F" grade from CinemaScore. An F doesn't just mean that an audience disliked a movie, it means that the audience feels betrayed by the movie, like they've been sold a false bill of goods. On one hand, this turn of events is understandable because the marketing for mother! doesn't really give a clear idea of what it's going to be, but it being a major studio release one could be forgiven for assuming that it's going to be a little more... normal. On the other hand, it's a Darren Aronofsky movie. The closest he's ever come to "mainstream" is Black Swan and that's only mainstream insofar as it was a box office and Oscar success. Most of his movies are flat out designed to alienate. Granted, even knowing that going in, watching mother! can still feel like a bit of an endurance test. I don't think there's any way to actually discuss this movie without spoiling it a little (or a lot), so consider this a spoiler warning.

mother!'s official summary describes it as: "A couple's relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence." In the most technical of senses, this is a completely true description of the plot, but there's more to it than that. mother! is a Biblical allegory and the couple at the center of it are credited as "Him" (as in God, played by Javier Bardem) and "Mother" (as in Mother Nature and, later, Mary of Nazareth, played by Jennifer Lawrence). Him is a writer (or "creator") whose writing room (Eden) is considered sacred and contains a special crystallized object (the forbidden fruit). Him and Mother live in a house that Mother has painstakingly built from the ashes, carefully putting each and every inch of it together all by herself. The house is the Earth, located in the middle of a vast forested area (the universe). One day a man (Ed Harris) shows up and is invited to stay by Him, who shows him around the house, including the writing room, but cautions him not to touch the crystal because it's precious. Later Mother sees that the man has a wound along his ribcage and the next day a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, claiming to be his wife. The woman is pushy and overbearing and, despite repeated requests, won't stay out of Him's writing room and ends up breaking his crystal.

Mother wants to kick the man and the woman out, but Him settles for merely locking the writing room to them. Soon their two sons show up and one kills the other, and more and more people keep coming until two of them break a pipe, causing the house to flood and driving everyone away. Things become peaceful once again and Mother becomes pregnant and is able to repair the damage that the guests have done to the house, but then Him finally works through his block and writes a new piece and it attracts swarms of new people to the house. At first I assumed that his new work was meant to be the Old Testament, but after some thought I think it's actually supposed to be the Ten Commandments seeing as people are shown literally coming through the wilderness to get copies of it and hear from Him. More and more people begin to crowd the house, ignoring Mother's pleas to leave, destroying the house piece by piece, forming factions which end up at odds with each other as they worship Him. In the midst of the growing chaos, Mother gives birth and, well, seeing as the baby is a stand-in for Jesus, there's probably nothing more that needs to be said about his fate.

Laying it all out like that doesn't really do justice to just how bonkers this movie is as Aronofsky goes all in on his thesis that humanity is a plague slowly driving mother nature so insane that she'd just as soon burn it all to the ground rather than have us as guests in her home any longer, weaving an environmental theme in with the religious one much like he did in his last feature, 2014's Noah. I think the environmental theme is more successfully explored here than it was there, with Him's "followers" taking his statement that everything is to be shared and interpreting it in the most selfish way possible, understanding it to mean that each of them can rip a piece of the house away and keep it just for themselves rather than that the space is there for everyone to share and enjoy. The followers have no respect for the house, taking it upon themselves to paint it, to tear parts of it down, and doing whatever they feel like doing wherever they feel like doing even as Mother asks them to stop. Most of the time they just ignore her pleas, but other times they laugh in her face as if her requests are ridiculous and all in all it's a pretty scathing indictment of the way that humans have run roughshod over the planet, treating it like it's something that we can ruin and replace later.

We can't replace it, of course, but Him can and does in a way that speaks to yet another big theme that Aronofsky has mixed into mother!, which is misogyny. From the beginning, there's a mild kind of sexism at play in the story which presents itself as being that of a younger woman whose entire reason for being is to serve an older man and help him achieve things. She has no ambitions of her own; everything she does is to try to help Him in his artistic endeavors. She rebuilds his house from the ruins and ashes (she's asked at one point why they didn't just bulldoze it and build a completely new house and her response is that they rebuilt it because "it's his house"), she tries to protect his space from the people who might invade it, all while he dismisses her concerns. She does everything for him, but she's judged by others for maybe not doing enough; she puts him first, but he always puts her a distant second, either unaware or unconcerned with her discomfort at all the people who keep coming into their house, and later telling her that they need to "find a way to forgive" the people who have just murdered their child. Those same people will then beat and spit on her while hurling words like "slut" at her. She gives and she gives and she gives and when there's literally nothing left, he asks her for just one more thing. My initial reaction to the ending was that it put the film's religious and environmental themes at odds with each other because it implies that Him/God doesn't really give a damn if we ruin the planet because he can just create the universe anew once this one is destroyed, but after some thought I think that what Aronofsky is trying to acknowledge is that things that get designated as "women's work" tend to be disregarded in importance even though they may be vital to society's functioning. Mother builds the world piece by piece, but in life she's nothing more than an appendage and in death she and what she has built are considered nothing but replaceable.

There's a lot going on in mother!, which is deep in thematic concerns and full of things that can be picked apart and debated. It's a film that's built for discussion, though that in and of itself doesn't necessarily make it "good." My own reaction to the film cycled through the following: intrigue, amusement, impatience, and finally the wish that I was watching it at home so that I could turn the fucking volume down (the sound design is increasingly discordant on purpose, but it became hard to take near the end). I didn't enjoy watching mother! and I'm not sure I would recommend it to anyone that I know because I'm pretty sure that if I did that person would end up hating me for making them watch it. At the same time, however, I admire Aronofsky's audacity. This is the kind of movie that a filmmaker can only make when he or she truly has a "vision" for something and I believe that Aronofsky has made exactly the movie that he wanted to make in a way that is defiant and entirely uncompromised by the need that it be liked by anyone else. At the very least, that makes it an artistic victory.

I also think the film is a victory for Lawrence, tasked with playing the only character in the film who reacts to anything like a normal human being would. This is a performance of patience strained to the breaking point and then beyond, and as the film begins to whirl wildly out of control it's Lawrence who holds down the center and gives the audience something to identify with, something which never feels false even in the highly stylized on-screen world that Aronofsky has created. She's the beating heart of a work that sometimes feels like a very clinical undertaking by Aronofsky, an exercise in formal and narrative extremes for the sake of going to those extremes. I don't think there's a movie released this year that I've struggled more over how to rate because while I ultimately didn't like mother! (I mostly liked it during the first half, but with each shrill escalation in the second, my goodwill started to elapse), there are things about it that I think are really good and I believe that it's exactly the movie it was designed to be. It takes guts to make a movie like this and I respect that even if I didn't relish watching it.

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