Masterpiece or Self Indulgent Mess. That is the Question
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is one of the most unique movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. On one hand, you have an extremely talented filmmaker creating one of the boldest films in years film molded to his precise artist vision but on the other, it is clear after two screenings that this vision does not resonate with audiences at all. Does it really have to though? That is the biggest struggle I have with mother! It is an undeniable exercise in filmmaking as an art akin in many ways to something out of Kubrick or Bergman’s filmography, however, its own heavy-handed message is one that doesn’t quite pay off nearly as well as the buildup to it suggests.
Jennifer Lawerence plays Mother (all the characters are unnamed) a young woman blissfully married to a poet (Javier Bardem), together they live in a large estate secluded seemingly from the rest of the world. Such an existence seems fine for Mother as she tends to the restoration of the house that is until the couple is greeted by an unexpected guest (Ed Harris). Immediately there is a tension that will continue to linger throughout. Who is this man? Why has he come here to the middle of nowhere to this exact house? Urging her husband to remove their guest The Poet instead ignores her pleas basking this the newfound admiration from the strange man who reveals himself to be a fan. So he stays eventually inviting more and more followers to the house creating many more problems in their wake. Just this setup alone would imply something stranger is afoot (which there is) but in true Aronofsky fashion, he chooses to take the viewers down a completely different rabbit hole entirely. The result is a downright insane religious allegory that as evident by the rare F CinemaScore has clearly alienated audiences.
The issue in that regard stems from subverting audience expectations. Marketed in the trailers as a horror thriller similar to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Aronofsky instead presents multiple metaphors to God, the Bible and the environment. The sheer weight of those themes is reason enough to turn off portions of the audience (of which some will assuredly miss the subtext completely) but beyond that, there is the question of whether these themes even work in the context of the film. Aronofsky has explored these avenues before in his previous films like The Fountain and Noah but those ideas were never quite as forced. mother! on the other hand, masks its themes in confusion and mysteries (many of which Aronofsky chooses not to solve) before reaching a chaotic climax that feels heavy-handed, rushed and unearned.
What people make out of the resulting rubble will be fascinating as I’m sure scholars in film studies and beyond will be breaking it down for years to come, however, the vast majority of viewers (even those who accept/understand Aronofsky’s allegory) will be left in a state of shock and bewilderment. Perhaps this is Aronofsky’s intention; to elicit multiple interpretations and discussion but even then, that feels pretentious (as if Aronofksy possesses some key answer that the audience can only guess).
That being said, credit has to be given to Aronofsky for his ambition. Regardless of where on the (incredibly polarizing) fence you stand at the end of mother! He has undoubtedly created a work of art. Incorporating the extreme close-ups he used in Black Swan, he keeps much of the film framed on Lawerence who in turn delivers an impressive performance. As the audience’s conduit to the world, much of the film hinges on Lawerence’s ability to react to disturbing imagery around her. In doing so she gives one of the more genuine performances of her young career.
As it gets analyzed further, It would not surprise me in the slightest if mother! is regarded as an all-time great film as more time passes. Like Bergman’s Seventh Seal (also featuring religious allegory and met with mixed reception upon release) mother! strikes me as exactly the type of film that becomes greater than it is in the moment. All the technical aspects that make Aronofsky a standout director are present to further such a case but in the present, I am left wondering if this is a masterpiece by a visionary artist? Or is it the machinations of an artist’s egotistical self-indulgence? I lean more towards the latter.