Darren Aronofsky’s mother! has quickly become one of the most debated films of the year, rejected by opening weekend moviegoers who understandably felt misled by the studio’s marketing campaign and embraced by critics and cinephiles who can’t stop arguing over the film’s merits and larger meaning. Is it a masterfully made expressionistic parable about the environment/religion/celebrity/or whatever you want it to be about? Or is it self-indulgent, pretentious and, worse yet, a complete waste of time since none of its individual parts ultimately add up to anything worthwhile?
Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about mother!, though. Here’s the thing that headlines like “Is ‘mother!’ a Head Trip? No, it’s an Allegory! Let the Term Papers Begin!” obfuscates: For the majority of its running time, this film can be enjoyed quite simply as a slow-moving psychological thriller. There doesn’t have to be a larger meaning to any of it. We follow Jennifer Lawrence through a house where things keep getting stranger and stranger, with little hints here and there of something vaguely supernatural or otherworldly afoot. It could be a Black Swan situation where we’re glimpsing a woman in the middle of a mental breakdown. Or it could just be a It Comes at Night/The Witch situation where the well-timed jump scares and simmering tension serve as effective window dressing for an eventual big finale. We don’t know.
Then that last half hour happens, and, yeah, the subtext rapidly becomes text. The already elastic reality of the film is bent beyond its breaking point as [spoiler alert] entire cycles of human history play out with alarming rapidity inside of the house in front of an increasingly confused and despondent Lawrence. It’s enough to make you pull a Ron Burgundy:
And you walk out desperate to talk to someone – anyone, really – about what you just saw. However, the inevitable focus on “what does it all mean?” tends to detract from any discussion of just how effective mother! is as a mindfuck mood piece with a go-for-broke, against-type performance from one of our biggest movie stars. So, rather than dive straight into my interpretation of what Aronofsky is trying to say here (I will get to that eventually) I’d prefer to at least take a moment to appreciate how much fun I had with the majority of this movie, how entranced I was by Lawrence’s quiet desperation and exasperation, how wowed I was by cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s constantly moving camera.
You know from the start that something’s not right since we open on a shot of a bloodied woman (who may or may not be Lawrence) partially engulfed by flames which then gives way to a smash cut to Javier Bardem seemingly breathing life into a mysterious crystal which then seems to erase all the fire damage in the house and magically create Lawrence’s character out of thin air. She wakes up in her bed and leans over to search for her husband (Bardem, whose character is simply known as Him).
It’s the type of opening you know will make more sense later, but it’s also the type of opening you can be fooled into accepting as some kind of artistic flourish, as if we are simply glimpsing the passage of time as newlyweds renovate a fire-damaged old home and that opening shot of the woman is either a preview of things to come or some piece of a larger puzzle to be solved.
Either way, it starts the film off on a note of unease, which adds extra intrigue to the otherwise mundane happenings in the house as a willowy and innocent Lawrence seeks to support and nurture her withdrawn poet husband, who is struggling with writer’s block. She spends her time renovating their Victorian-era home, which is mysteriously surrounded by fields of green grass with no driveway nor hint of civilization; he spends his time searching in vain for a creative spark which continues to elude him, no matter how often his wife assures him the words will come to him eventually.
Then Ed Harris shows up.
A little later Michelle Pfeiffer shows up.
The poet keeps welcoming the relative strangers into the home in the apparent hope the life they bring will provide the inspiration he so desperately needs; the wife continues to tolerate the new guests and does her best with a situation she objected to but was overruled on by an insensitive husband. We are left to guess what the strangers are really up to (they claim to simply be fans of the poet’s work) as well as question Lawrence’s trustworthiness as an anchor character, especially since she appears to have a vision of a live, pumping heart everytime she touches a wall in the house.
So, sure, from her point of view the events unfolding in the home seem rather suspicious, but can her point of view be trusted? It’s all we’ve got, though, sometimes quite literally. The camera is so often in extreme close-up on her face and pivots so often to follow her gaze that it almost seems like Jennifer Lawrence is wearing an artsy Go-Pro on her head, greatly enhancing the inherent sense of claustrophobic horror given the film’s single setting.
It’s all very Rosemary’s Baby-like until it’s not. Instead of building to a conspiracy theory-revealing finale, the mindfuck thriller you’ve been enjoying/expecting turns into a series of increasingly strange events that almost defy description. This thing that kind of works as a haunted house movie reveals grander ambitions and takes a hard left turn into pure cinematic experimentation, either leaving you far behind or taking you along for a heady ride, depending on your tolerance level for surrealism.
And that’s when the conversation turns toward “what’s it all about?” Personally, on Vulture’s handy dandy list of potential mother! interpretations I subscribe to the “It’s about Darren Aronofsky” theory which posits the film is the fever dream of a creative individual reflecting on a failed relationship (his near-decade long coupling with Rachel Weisz, who bore him a son) but doing so after having just made a biblical epic (Noah) and living through the Trump election meaning he filtered his thoughts and regrets through biblical metaphor and rough commentary on the current state of the world. This is perhaps one of the least flattering interpretations of the film as it argues Aronofsky has equated himself to God in the form of his film stand-in played by Bardem, and doesn’t necessarily portend good things for the long-term health of Aronofsky’s off-screen relationship with Lawrence, the two coming out as a couple on the film festival circuit last month.
But based on other people’s reviews this also appears to be among the least popular theories. More people seem to be running with a biblical or social commentary angle instead of autobiographical. Others, of course, are simply running away from the movie entirely, wanting no part of this college seminar posing as a movie. Thus, mother! has a limited audience with little to no mainstream appeal, but for those up for a welcome bit of experimentation, this insane little movie yields wonderful rewards.
THE BOTTOM LINE
mother!’s larger meaning is all you’ll want to talk about, but the journey getting there plays with haunted house and psychological thriller tropes in inventive and engaging ways, enough to keep you hooked until the surrealism comes at you fast and furious. In my reading, it’s the work of a man working through relationship regrets and general despair over the state of things, but you’ll likely have your own take on it. Everyone else does. That a film in 2017 could inspire such wildly differing interpretations is commendable.