Darren Aronofsky tosses Val Lewton, Luis Buñuel, Roman Polanski, and (in a particularly ill-advised move) Eli Roth into a kooky cauldron and boils up a whole lot of horror imagery and ideas to concoct a cosmetic, comedic, chaotic confession of sorts about being an egocentric writer who values the admiration of his fans over, well, everything. Call it A Portrait of the Artist as an Asshole. Aronofsky calls it mother!, complete with lack of capitalization and adorned with cheeky exclamation point. Sure, why not.
For the entirety of the two-hour running time in which Aronofsky puts an innocent, passive Jennifer Lawrence in the midst of maison madness, the filmmaker attaches every angry, frustrated theme he can dream up to what often feels like a squirmingly silly spoof of home invasion thrillers.
The key to enjoying the ride is to accept, either out of faith or blind hope, that the silliness is intentional, that Aronofsky is satirizing the artist’s ego, the perils of fame, traditional gender roles, and the flippancy with which humankind seems determined to destroy either itself or the planet we live on, if not both. That he’s able to pile all these themes into a story that literally never leaves a solitary country house (with a camera that rarely ever leaves Lawrence’s shoulder) is oddly impressive.
But even then, speaking of the movie in terms of such praise as "impressive" opens its own can of worms, because at points it seems Aronofsky is completely lost in the mess of his message. While he gives the audience plenty to chew on, he eventually creeps too far into gross-out territory in a last-ditch effort to shock whoever is left watching without a squeamish look on their face.
You could say that the movie is Aronofsky’s way of rattling the cages of Hell, unleashing monsters in a bold bid to wake us up to the horrors unfolding in our current reality. But is directing a crowd of obsessive fans to beat superstar Lawrence to a pulp in one scene really the best way to get his point across?
mother! is a movie built entirely on a graveyard of questions. While it’s often easy to decode Aronofsky’s metaphors, there are no answers to anything, which makes for an experience that will likely fascinate as many viewers as it will frustrate. There are many forays into traditional horror territory that are intended only to throw us and Lawrence off balance, as if the house itself is guilty by mere genre association.
Nothing that happens throughout the movie, from its brief moments of quiet solitude to its eventual raucous conclusion, can be taken at face value, so for all the times that Lawrence’s unnamed character walks down to the creepy basement with the old wall-shaking furnace or turns around to find herself shocked by a character’s creepy ability to sidle up, Aronofsky appears only to be messing with fright flick conventions and preconceptions.
It’s as though he wants to illuminate the differences between a traditional horror film and the more unusual thing he has conceived of, although mother! is at its best when it’s being darkly funny, not scary. The awkward humour flows consistently early on, when a knock at the door of Lawrence’s character’s home results in her poet husband played by Javier Bardem inviting a stranger inside.
Ed Harris makes a familiar stranger to movie audiences, but he brings an ominous presence for Lawrence’s confused wife, who can’t figure out first why he’s at their door and later why he’s become so immediately chummy with her husband. Things only get weirder when a devilish Michelle Pfeiffer turns up at the door playing the rude wife of Harris’ perpetually coughing surgeon. She barges in, makes herself at home, and becomes an instant nuisance for Lawrence’s homemaker, who remains baffled at the sudden gaining of two houseguests.
The moments and exchanges between these four people all sharing the large space that now feels somewhat cramped are among the movie’s best bits, often inspiring awkward laughs, suggesting that this has the makings of an arthouse sitcom. The ensemble cast works wonderfully together and everything from the claustrophobic camera work to the eerily echoing sound design enhance the peculiarities of the situation.
Aronofsky apparently wants us to chuckle uncomfortably at the oddball occurrences, especially as the story progresses and Lawrence’s world spins wildly off its axis. While the humour is flowing, the filmmaker appears to poke fun at himself, at other artists, and at the very concept of the pretentious artiste whose work is endlessly representative of something more and whose power as a creator is unmatched by mere mortals.
Where the satirical edge begins and ends then becomes the question. As an overall summation, the movie is either an admittance by Aronofsky that he really thinks (his own) artistic inventiveness is next to godliness or a large, elaborate gag with a self-deprecating punchline. He certainly provides enough evidence to support both theories.
Whatever the case may be, the seemingly satirical thread eventually runs its course and it’s at this point that the movie’s struggles are loudly exposed. As Aronofsky fights to birth his overarching point (let me cut that umbilical cord for you, Darren!), the most easily identifiable shortcoming of mother! comes into focus: its core mystery of whether we should laugh or cry about all this horror doesn’t ever grow into a particularly emotional opportunity for introspection.
Aronofsky attends to his themes in a wilder, wackier way than most of his mainstream contemporaries would care to try, but his movie lacks heart, which is ironic considering how literally the filmmaker displays his beating heart imagery here. Aronofsky is too walled up to care and treats either his rage as a joke or his joke as rage.
His garbled attempts to communicate this craziness remain intriguing in their sheer thematic thirst, sucking the lifeblood of every subject that the filmmaker holds dear, from our treatment of the environment to the lessons we can learn from biblical narratives. A wide release feature with major movie stars is rarely built so brazenly on so symbolic a plot, which certainly thrusts mother! into unique territory.
The worth of such uniqueness is debatable, of course, and Aronofsky seems content to stoke the fires of such a debate, leaving audiences to argue over the effectiveness of his gaudy goading. Personally speaking, Aronofsky’s attempt captivates, but for someone so desperate to strike a nerve, he seems strangely satisfied to settle for lightly tickling it instead.