Darren Aronofsky is a stand up guy. I assume. I’ve never met him, but I usually like his movies. However, I had reservations about watching “mother!”, his 2017 effort. If you’ll recall, the film came out in the summer and featured Jennifer Lawrence, which might have set some people’s expectations in a certain direction. The film was a box office bomb, and it sharply divided critics. Even those who liked it admitted that it was obscure, violent and at points disturbing, the kind of movie that features a bloody-yet-beating human heart suddenly appearing in a toilet. Still, once it came out on DVD, I figured the title could be understood as an audience suggestion.
That’s right. I watched “mother!” with my mother around Mother’s Day. I wasn’t unnerved about watching so controversial a film with her. No sir. We’re both adults, and we can get along like adults. That’s why I chugged two beers in the bathroom before starting the movie.
“mother!” begins with the titular mother (Lawrence) waking up–notably, her first word, and the first word of the film, is: “Baby?” But the baby she’s looking for is her husband (a very game Javier Bardem), a writer who has moved the couple into his childhood country home. He tries to write and she fixes up the stately estate, which is still recovering from a fire that nearly destroyed it.
This quiet partnership is disturbed when a man (Ed Harris) stumbles into the house one night, coughing and professing his admiration for the husband’s work. The next day, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) appears. After that, it’s their bickering sons (real life brothers Domhall and Brian Gleeson). And after that, a spontaneous wake is held in the dining room, with more people gathering on the doorstep. The mother tries to keep the house from splitting at the seams and keep her husband’s attention before he’s lost in the crowd.
“mother!” is labeled a “psychological horror” film on Wikipedia, which is somewhat misleading. Not because I think serious art–and “mother!” is art, there’s no question about that–can’t be psychological horror. I am one of the biggest opponents of the mystery science gutter, and Aronofsky clearly agrees with me. He turned out a brilliant piece of psychological horror, “Black Swan,” which is also unquestionably art. However, while “mother!” starts out like a psychological thriller, it veers rather rapidly into more esoteric territory.
Some critics argued that “mother!” is a bit too scattered in its themes. Is it about the environment? Is it a biblical allegory? A parable about the dangers of male dominance? An examination of creative genius and those caught on its periphery? The evolution of culture? I ask, why can’t it be about all of that? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that a great mind is one that can hold two opposing points of view in mind and stay sane. A great film is able to capture more than one theme on its screen, and smart viewers should have no problem handling them.
Even if those subjects aren’t quite your cup of tea, you can’t argue with the cast. Lawrence, Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer all dive into their roles with strength and sensitivity. And even if you don’t like Ed Harris–is there anyone who actually doesn’t like Ed Harris?–you can simply marvel at the truly engaging photography. Despite taking place almost entirely in a single building, there is a stunning sense of scale. There is a sequence in the film’s second half where the house is made paradoxically both spacious and claustrophobic, and I think that was the moment I knew this was one of the best movies of the year.
The film does lack a score, which Clint Mansell fans can complain about, but the resulting sonic space is deafening. And what’s with the oddly perfect closing cover of “End of the World”? Who does Aronofsky think he is, Ken Levine? Or perhaps David Lynch?
All right, all right, I get it. Aronofsky can be an acquired taste. But for viewers who like the flavor, “mother!” is a fascinating and thrilling film that will stay with them long after the naysayers have gone home to mommy.