**1/2 out of ****
(for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity, and strong language)
Released: September 15, 2017
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfieffer
I could’ve sworn we wouldn’t see a riskier film in 2017 than David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. I was wrong.
Being wrong is what happens when you don’t factor in Darren Aronofsky to your equation. His impulse to test convention should never be underestimated. If anything, with a filmography that includes The Fountain, Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Noah, and more, pushing boundaries should be assumed as his baseline.
His latest experiment is arguably the boldest thing he’s ever done, a queasy haunting dreamscape, but it’s also possibly his most flawed. mother! isn’t merely a title; it’s a fitting exclamation for enduring the film’s maddening and needless inscrutability.
mother!, a story (to use that term liberally) about a couple that welcomes surprise guests into their bucolic home, is a movie in which everything is symbolic but nothing makes sense. Only by the end (if you’ve been able to give it that much rope) do the core metaphors begin to reveal themselves, but even then it’s guesswork. That’s sort of a payoff, I guess, and I respect what Aronofsky’s aiming for, but the experience of getting there is too abstract for its own good.
An effective use of parable is when a story clearly stands on its own, whether you catch all of the symbols or not. mother! doesn’t work that way. Here, if you don’t grasp the metaphors, it’s all nonsense without a point or purpose. It’s still visceral but it’s also endlessly frustrating, and eventually exhausting.
There’s no mystery to solve here. By design, mother! is pretentiously opaque, playing out like the kind of hallucinatory nightmare that shocks you awake, compelling you to figure it out, only to realize how futile those attempts at discernment are. That lack of clarity makes mother! increasingly obnoxious, keeping its audience at arm’s length both intellectually and emotionally.
For something so confidently made – with every last moment, action, line, and detail being there by obvious intention – mother! feels confusing, disjointed, and random. Its plot doesn’t appear to be grounded in anything, reality or otherwise, requiring too much discomforting guesswork and a perverse test of patience.
From a first-time filmmaker, mother! would be a rough yet provocative effort filled with promise. From Aronofosky, however, this should have a much sharper focus than it does even as it maintains its potent fever dream aesthetic. His cast serves him well, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem especially, but Aronofosky doesn’t return the favor. Instead, mother! is far too impervious for far too long, especially for someone of Aronofsky’s experience and track record (which at times has risen to the legitimately profound).
Down the final chaotic stretch, what’s cryptic becomes more clear as more obvious symbols emerge. SPOILER ALERT (highlight text to read): the characters portrayed by Lawrence and Bardem are stand-ins for the conflict Aronofsky perceives between a pure Mother Earth and a well-meaning but extremely flawed God, or a deity that is equal parts God and Devil. Bardem’s character is listed as “Him” in the credits; it’s the only name that’s capitalized, further emphasizing the point. Mother Earth is a victim of this flawed Creator, who prioritizes his flawed creations over her. And eventually, after those creations kill the baby that Father and Mother have given them (a.k.a. crucifying Christ), they abuse and rape her as well, mirroring our modern environmental fears. The parable’s final hope is that, even after an inevitable apocalypse, a new Eden will emerge and life will always get another chance. END SPOILER ALERT.
For even deeper dives, you can read in-depth breakdowns here, here, here, and here. The last one is particularly incisive when it says SPOILER ALERT (highlight text to read): Moreover, the love that generates the world is encased in an imperfect vessel, as Lurianic Kabbalah holds. Its spark is contained in a vessel that will inevitably shatter, bringing evil into the world. When Woman ate of the forbidden fruit, it wasn’t an apple or a fig – it was the kli, the vessel of the Divine Light itself. And she shattered it. Darren Aronofsky has thus retold the gnostic myth of the kosmos, with God as Satan. It is not God who creates or maintains the world: it is the Goddess; Her; Isis; Astarte; Asherah. The Male God is the False God, as Gnosticism (and perhaps some echoes of it in Kabbalah) insists. He is the usurper of the power of the true Deity, the Feminine, the Goddess, and while she gives and nourishes, he lives only for himself. another chance. END SPOILER ALERT.
As intriguing as all of that is, even elevating the otherwise exasperating endeavor, the problem we’re left with after having the parallels explained to us is that mother! remains nothing more than a clever exercise.
Beyond its construct and what it all represents, mother! doesn’t resonate in a way that sticks with us, messes with us, or causes us to question our preconceived notions or beliefs. We aren’t challenged. We aren’t even inspired to be. Its complexities are all surface level while its ideas are few and thin, and its indictments boilerplate.
Disappointing gripes aside, we should all hope that Aronofsky keeps following his muses, and that there’ll always be financiers (like Paramount Pictures) who are willing to fund him. Artists like Aronofsky are akin to legendary homerun hitters: even when they strike out, the swing is still so damn impressive, the form a thing of beauty. Sure, these artists will whiff on occasion, but you’ll never want them to stop swinging for the fences.