The horror of impotence
The Mother! trailer that dropped with little fanfare last month succeeded in doing what trailers are meant to do: It drummed up hype for Mother!. With its creepy string instrument shrieks, it gave the impression that Mother! would be a pretty far-out horror movie, maybe a home invasion thriller, probably with some surreal elements--this is from Darren Aronofsky, the guy behind movies like Requiem For a Dream and Black Swan, after all. Seems great, no?
Those assumptions turned out to be not exactly correct. Mother! is not a horror movie. It is a thriller, though absolutely not one that can be draped with any existing subgenre labels. It's a deranged fever dream, the kind where you want to run, scream, or punch someone, but your body simply refuses to move. You're left powerless. That's legitimately how it feels to watch Mother!, a shocking, frustrating, painfully tense film.
On its ground floor, Mother! is about a woman whose weirdly placid husband allows their home to be repeatedly invaded in ever more egregious ways. But the film toys with fantastical elements from its opening moments, when star Javier Bardem places a crystal in a metal stand and watches as his home's blackened, charred bones transform back into the peculiar Victorian house that serves as Mother!'s sole setting.
That's not a one-off event simply to set up the story, either. These dream-like moments pervade Mother!, and that's before things really go off the deep end. Blood rots the floor and drips down the basement walls, while the house regularly shakes and shudders as star Jennifer Lawrence loses her grip. Bardem's nameless poet struggles vaguely with writer's block, and repeatedly invites strangers into his home as a means of procrastination (or so it initially seems). First it's Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom also go unnamed. Then the rest of their family arrives, and then a whole lot more people, and a brief reprieve later, the house devolves into utter chaos, reality coming completely undone.
Lawrence's protagonist, also unnamed, remains powerless through it all, even in the movie's completely insane second act. That's when it fully leaves the ground behind, flying into an extended, shockingly violent series of events that somehow combines elements of a book signing, a wild rave, a riot, an actual guerilla war, a human-trafficking ring, an execution, a press conference, a religious ceremony, human sacrifice, and the Bible. Years seem to pass in the space of an evening, the masses in the house transforming into party guests, slaves, protesters, warriors, worshippers, and hate-filled murderers as the ever-shifting scene demands.
Mother! isn't really about the events of its plot. What it is about is open to interpretation. The camera fixates uncomfortably close on the actors' faces, particularly Lawrence's. You feel the pain of her inability to affect the situation in any way, and Mother! is extremely effective as the story of a woman whose agency, her ability to act, has been stolen from her by the man she loves. She's subjected to the vicious wills of outside forces over which she should have full control. Her husband is a disarming force who only serves to coo and placate her into inaction. When she finally wakes up, it's far too late. The cycle starts again. This feels like the film's clearest thematic thread: The ways in which people in a relationship manipulate one another to feed their own egos.
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Mother!'s symbolism is rarely subtle. At its heart are the themes of destruction and creation, pleasure and pain, privacy and agency. From the fire that consumes the house and the lighter that ignites the cigarette that consumes the body, to the Mother, who wants to live in peace, to paint her house, to raise it from the ashes where it fell, to make new life--every detail works toward these metaphors. Harris and Pfeiffer prove absolutely maddening as semi-welcomed home invaders, oozing hostility through body language even with smiles on their faces. Bardem is a self-centered black hole of happiness, though by the time Lawrence realizes it, the car has long left the garage. Kristen Wiig even makes a brief appearance, her character's cameo only adding to the sense that it's all a strange nightmare.
The stories behind this movie have already begun to seem like the stuff of filmmaking legend. In a statement given during the recent Venice Film Festival and sent to GameSpot as a typed-out email attachment, Aronofsky decried the current state of a world he believes is plagued by problems "too serious to fathom" and "too ridiculous to comprehend," from climate change to politics to world hunger.
"From this primordial soup of angst and helplessness, I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me like a fever dream," he said. And it will pour into you like one, too, should you choose to watch it.
Mother! is tough to get through, uncomfortable and frustrating, both blunt with its symbolism and incredibly obtuse, and shocking in its violence, particularly toward Lawrence, with a couple of scenes so depraved that some viewers will find them difficult or impossible to watch. But it's also a singular work of art that film fans shouldn't miss, no matter how you feel about it once you snap back to reality.