With only strange posters and cryptic trailers, details about mother! have been deliberately kept to a minimum. The new film from Darren Aronofsky is one of his stranger works. Picture the creeping suspicion from Rosemary’s Baby, the allegory of The Fountain, and paranoid jump scares like the refrigerator scene in Requiem for a Dream all mixed together with a continuously escalating sense of chaos. Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) plays the much younger wife of a poet (Javier Bardem; No Country for Old Men) who has been struggling with writer’s block. They live together in a secluded house that Lawrence is renovating while Bardem struggles to complete new material. Their peaceful isolation is broken when a strange man visits and stays for the night, bringing with him much more than expected.
Working with his regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s camera is fixated on Jennifer Lawrence. The film is shot in uncomfortably tight close-ups with an unstable handheld camera. Libatique employs a constantly moving technique that creates a dizzying effect. Like a lab rat desperately trying to escape a maze, the camera swerves from room to room with each movement revealing more sinister situations. Its swirling pans prevent the tension from ever receding as increasingly destructive events erupt into the frame. As Lawrence, in her best performance to date, attempts to defuse her growing predicaments, her pure, altruistic love for her husband comes into stark contrast against the predatory beings intruding into her world.
This is film that begs the question “how did this get made?”. And by a major studio! It may be that Paramount was hoping to stumble onto Black Swan levels of box office success, but that film didn’t contain anything nearly as divisive. mother! becomes unapologetically twisted and downright mean. Characters suffer horrible mistreatment while others seem unconcerned which may repulse viewers unused to such transgressions. As things spiral out of control, the film never stops to explain itself. Rather than elucidate the purpose behind the disorienting thrills, the film argues that the thrills are themselves the purpose and comes to a recursive conclusion that may leave general audiences unsatisfied. mother! is a film to be appreciated as a bewildering experience rather than typical narrative.
Aronofsky has stated his intentions about the film representing climate change. Lawrence is supposed to be the embodiment of mother nature with her shameless abuse representing the damaging effect of a greedy, merciless mankind. This interpretation may help understand the film and it seems justified, but my initial thoughts went elsewhere. This is a story of the mad, all-consuming destruction wreaked by an artist. Bardem’s character’s supposed commitment to his writing is slowly revealed to be nothing more than self-absorption hiding behind a pretense of depth. Every action he takes is self-aggrandizing and he is completely dismissive of the support from Lawrence’s character. mother! is a takedown of the egotistical nature of art. It externalizes the ugliness and selfishness of people fixated on their own success. The often vile acts onscreen may be exaggerations, but they aren’t untruths. Aronofsky has created a dizzying, disquieting, and disturbing descent into the dark side of any artistic pursuit.