Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is a daring, uncompromising and extremely unsettling drama featuring a brilliant performance from four-time Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence (she won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2013 for Silver Linings Playbook).
At the start of the film, Lawrence’s character (never named, but referred to as “mother” in the credits) is working on renovations of the home she shares with her poet husband (this character, also never named, is credited as “Him” and played by three-time Academy Award nominee (and winner for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2008 for No Country for Old Men) Javier Bardem). Though the house is apparently his, she does the work while he struggles with writing something new. They are in love, but there is something oddly distant between the two of them. One night, a man (four-time Academy Award nominee Ed Harris) knocks on their door. Though he is a complete stranger, the husband invites him to stay the night. The next day, the man’s wife (three-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives. Much to mother’s alarm, the Bardem character invites them to stay for as long as they want. Then, strange things begin to happen. Not only will I not reveal any more than that, it would be nearly impossible for me to do so even if I wanted to.
What I can talk about are the performances. Jennifer Lawrence is not only in every scene, almost every shot in the film is about her. She is either on-screen or we are seeing from her point of view in nearly every moment of the film. It is a very difficult role and she gives a powerful performance that starts quiet and gets more intense as events get crazier. She really anchors the film (as much as this film can be anchored). Bardem is also very good as a man who is an enigma even to his wife. His decisions seem puzzling and his motivations are the film’s central mystery. Harris and Pfeiffer are solid as usual in their roles. Their characters’ main purpose is to incite a reaction out of mother (and the audience) and they do this very effectively (especially Pfeiffer, who is delightfully sinister).
mother! (116 minutes minus the end credits) is also a triumph for writer/director Darren Aronofsky (a Best Director Oscar nominee in 2011 for Black Swan). It is obvious that he had very clear ideas of what he wanted to accomplish with this film and he does not hold back. His vision is bold, potentially offensive and (despite the film’s wide release) not for mainstream audiences. He knows what his film is and there is a confidence to it that is incredibly impressive. He was not afraid of people leaving the theater angry.
There are two major touches in his direction that I enjoyed, one subtle, one far less subtle. The first is his use of colors, specifically when it comes to the Lawrence character. For much of the way, this is a fairly bright film and mother is usually wearing white. I won’t say what that symbolizes (and I can’t say for sure, though I do have some theories), but it makes her stand out as a beacon of hope and/or purity among the madness. It sets her apart from the other characters and highlights her emotional isolation from them.
The other touch is the camerawork by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who has now worked with Aronofsky on 6 of his 7 feature-length films and was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar in 2011 for Aronofsky’s Black Swan). The entire film takes place inside the house and the camera stays close to the actors. The shot selection makes mother! feel shockingly intimate and claustrophobic. As I said earlier, Jennifer Lawrence is on-screen for most of the film. A lot of that time is spent on close-ups of her face. This can be very jarring because we as audience members are used to being able to orient ourselves by seeing the actors as well as the space around them. Especially in a film coming from a big Hollywood studio (mother! was distributed by Paramount Pictures). Here, we are with mother every step of the way. There is no release for the viewer. Her nightmare becomes our nightmare.
Let me make this clear: it is very possible that you will hate mother! It is a very divisive film. While some critics have praised the film, there are more than a few reviews out there from critics who absolutely despised it. Word of mouth from general audiences has been quite poor. It is a challenging movie with bold and disturbing images. You will probably be confused. This is not a movie you can just watch; Aronofsky makes you experience it. mother! is absurdist, metaphorical and surrealist (especially in its crazy last half hour). It does not have a literal interpretation. Everyone who sees it will have different ideas of what the films means, if they think it means anything at all. This is not the kind of film that usually gets a wide release from a major studio. It has been marketed as a horror film, but it is absolutely not a mainstream horror film. I am not sure I would classify it as horror at all but, to be perfectly honest, I have no idea what genre to put it in.
Words like offensive, disturbing, confusing and unclassifiable come to mind while trying to discuss mother! But I do not consider those to be criticisms. When a movie is not working for me, those things could make it a disaster. When it is working, they make it unique and fascinating. For some viewers, mother! will be a disaster. For me, it is the best movie of 2017 so far.
5 out of 5
Jennifer Lawrence as mother
Javier Bardem as Him
Ed Harris as Man
Michelle Pfeiffer as Woman
Written and Directed by Darren Aronofsky