Movie Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

Mother!About ten years back, I went to a play at one of my local rep theatres. If I remember right, it was an American premiere, but I suppose that doesn’t really figure into the story. The next day, I was inspired to send a $100 contribution to the theatre, with the accompanying note. “I saw (BLANK) last night. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen at your theatre. But I admire the hell out of you for attempting it. Keep up the good work.” I received a positively giddy reply from the artistic director.

Two years later, I dropped my subscription when the same theatre put on a season that included “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “My Fair Lady.”

I was reminded of this while reading through the controversy surrounding the reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s new movie mother!. It has received mixed/favorable reviews but has been the target of some very nasty barbs from audiences at large. The studio that released it, Paramount, has come to its defense saying, in part, ‘we don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”

It’s a great debate. How do we value failed but noble artistic endeavors?

More on that shortly. First, a review.

mother! is awful.

You need more? Okay.

Aronofsky has made a number a movies about virtuosity and the price that must be paid for exceptional achievement. About the dangers that accompany any approaches near the divine. It was there in his first movie Pi and he has continued to explore it, often with astonishing vision, in later movies such as Black Swan and Noah. It is instructive to remember those two more recent movies when considering mother!, because in many ways, the new movie seems to be reconciling them, albeit in an extremely messy manner. The central character in mother! has no name – none of the characters do. She is a young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence, and she is rebuilding a home for her older husband, referred to as The Poet, and played by Javier Bardem. Because of the narrative open-endedness, in which surreal imagery and incident run headlong into essential human realities, you can see Bardem’s character as an Artist or as a Deity. In either case, his need for devotion is insatiable. And Lawrence, who may be interpreted as anything from subservient Woman to sycophantic Fan to put-upon Mother Earth, provides the never-ending supply of adoration that fuels excess, violence, and mania.

Mother!It is weighty material, and I admire the hell out of Aronofsky for trying. But it is hard to excuse the failure. The narrative is so poorly weighted that I found myself wishing it would simply end. The first half witnesses the slow invasion of the Home by outsiders who refuse to show any respect and eventually cause destruction. After an ellipsis which skirts overt the work of rebuilding (and, as the title suggests, re-populating), the exact same thing happens, only to a much larger and more horrific degree. The direction becomes chaotic, the action hard to follow. More windows and doors are smashed than there are windows and doors in the house. More people flood into the confined space than the space would allow. The level of atrocity grows higher and higher, with fleeting references to virtually every plague the modern world knows – from mass genocide to religious zealotry to environmental destruction. There are automatic weapons and acts of cannibalism. There is mass hysteria and there is human sacrifice. If Aronofsky had been able to find the vein of absurdist humor in the chaos, he might have been able to create something engaging. But Aronofsky is not Luis Bunuel, and his fatal flaw has always been that lack of humor.

The absence of names is a rather obvious acknowledgement that the director is not concerned with these figures as humans, but rather as symbols. As such, it is impossible to ever feel any love, fear, sympathy, etc. for any of them. The one exception to this comes in the brief early appearance of Domhnall Gleeson as the tortured Older Son of a couple visiting the Poet and his Wife. Gleeson gets no backstory and only the scantest of motivations for his terrible actions, but he is somehow able to project a humanity that is utterly lacking in the other characters.

It is possible to employ surrealism and explore deep metaphysical questions while keeping a narrative grounded in enough reality so that an audience can gauge its reactions. I already mentioned Bunuel, who perhaps did this better than anyone. Veiko Ounpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony (2009) is a less-ballyhooed and more successful attempt along these lines.

Inspired by mother!, I now abandon the organized, coherent portion of the review, and launch into a series of random, scattered observations.

  • The artistic obsession of Black Swan and the religious obsession of Noah merge in the figure of Bardem’s Poet/God in mother! Pretty nifty, huh?
  • Aronofsky has a thing for blank muddied surfaces. The unblinking gray sky that Noah lingers upon is echoed in the similar texture/color of the partly plastered walls that Lawrence stares at in mother! And in hindsight, it may be there in the array of numbers in Pi.
  • Despite these flirtations with the abstract, Aronofsky’s two best movies were his two most realistically grounded – Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. Maybe there’s something to be learned from that.
  • It is very disconcerting to see the physical and emotional violence to which Aronofsky subjects Lawrence in mother! I cannot recall an older man brutalizing a younger actress with whom he is romantically linked to this degree since Clint Eastwood had the crap beaten out of Sondra Locke in Sudden Impact.
  • The play to which I was referring in the opening is Peter Parnell’s “Trumpery.” (That has nothing to do with Aronofsky. I just tossed it in as an amuse-bouche.)

Okay, back to the original question. How do we value artistic ambition and scope when faced with failed experiments?

The past year has seen a number of art-house movies which got a degree of critical acclaim, and which I personally found lacking. Nicolas Winding Refn contributed the worst of these with The Neon Demon. Yorgos Lanthimos offered the best with The Lobster. Felipe Braganca fell somewhere in between with Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl. I didn’t like any of these movies. I found the first half of The Lobster to be truly fresh and intriguing and was very dismayed to see it devolve into the kind of movie I have seen many times before in its second half. Still I would rather watch any of these movies than another Transformers. (Maybe not Neon Demon – God, I hated that.) At least these experiments move the needle. They push the conversation, even in failure. You don’t have to like them, but we should appreciate their existence.

I suppose in the end it is like the thing they tell you when you are applying to college. Colleges, they say, value academic rigor above all else. That means you rise to the highest level by taking the most challenging courses. However, there is an important caveat. You can’t fail all those tough classes. You have to reveal something of value, or else you would be better off taking a less difficult course load and passing the classes. Aronofsky failed with mother! But I have every reason to believe he will pass at least a few more challenging courses before he calls it a day.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

15 thoughts on “Movie Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

  1. Jon, this is a very fine review that raises this question for me: How in the world did this movie ever get greenlighted? I find Arnofsky to have an overly busy style that lends itself, unfortunately, to all kinds of pretentiousness. Pi I rather liked, but even Requiem for a Dream I found just tedious and annoying in an in-your-face kind of way. I just don’t know what the studio was thinking and why it didn’t get shelved.

    • You try to read the minds of decision makers in Hollywood at your own peril, Simon. I suspect this project appealed to Paramount for several reasons. Studios have always liked being attached to prestige projects, and whether you agree or not, Aronofsky’s name carries prestige. I think Black Swan bought him some time in that regard. It was well received and did solid box office. The Wrestler, to me his least adorned and best movie, was also commercially successful, on a smaller scale. Noah was a flop, but even at that, it did over $100 million and got many positive reviews. I think the thought of a new Aronofsky movie starring Jennifer Lawrence was too tempting for Paramount to pass up. And as I said, I prefer them green lighting this than The Mummy 2.

  2. Wait a minute Jon–you applaud the studio’s bold move in distributing this hot mess? Or in selling it by highlighting it’s divisiveness? If the former, well, fine, I guess. But the latter? That’s just gimmicky marketing and making lemonade from a lemon–hardly a sign of boldness. Also, these days we are positively gorging on divisiveness. It’s become our national raison d’etre. Everyone is spoiling for a fight – at all times. Suggesting a movie is “divisive” is liking throwing raw meat at a pack of dogs.

    • Two thoughts Nancy. First, not every debate is necessarily a metaphor for the current climate of political discourse. We are still allowed to argue about the merits of movies without the argument having a larger social context. Second, if you do see it as part of that broader social fabric, the fundamental difference between this marketing strategy and the deplorable state of public discourse is that Paramount is asking you to see the movie and then reach your own decision. Of course they are just trying to sell you a ticket, but I don’t hear Fox or MSNBC making a similar suggestion.

  3. Loved this response. “Some viewers will love ‘Mother’ as much as I love those two, and that is what taste and preference dictate.” This tends to be my complete take of things because there are films that have been loved by reviewers and the general public alike, which I hated. Conversely, others I feel blessed to be walking the planet during the time in which it was created, many hate. Lol. So…

    However, I will say this. I am not passionate about Aronofsky’s work. I find all of his pieces to have moments of brilliance, and moments where I think he’s left the shore (lost in tangents).

    To close, I am sure, this week I will hear how much a few people loved this movie. Even love his work. I dunno…

  4. Thanks Pete. There’s a fascinating thing going on in the advertising here in the States. Last night I saw a commercial for the movie which proudly proclaimed it to be the most divisive movie of the year and cautioned that you might hate it. I applaud such a bold move by Paramount.

    • Can’t say I’ve heard that particular complaint before. She was phenomenal in Winter’s Bone, and David O. Russell has used her very well. But she’s not good in this, with just two years – meek and screaming. But Bardem is not particularly good, nor is Pfeiffer, so I’m guessing a lot of that had to do with script and direction.

  5. Fair review. I wished I had time to review it because I don’t think it’s either as bad or as good as some people say. It’s a bit to bombastic to deserve fair comparison to Bunuel but it at least forces many to confront today’s sort of apathetic vampirism of celebrity life and art. The God/Mother Earth, however, feels a bit embarrassing to address because it doesn’t always work — even though that was the intention! The film says more about the director than he even cares to admit.

    • Thanks, Hans. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Aronofsky is absurdist in thought but not by nature. And that makes for an awkward tension that is at times brilliant, and at other times, well, not so brilliant.

  6. Nice work, Jon. I feel that Art House and experimental films need to be made, but we don’t have to like them, of course. For every ‘Mother’, there is a ‘Dancer In The Dark’, or ‘The Cook ,The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover’. Some viewers will love ‘Mother’ as much as I love those two, and that is what taste and preference dictate. When films are presented as ‘Art’ instead of entertainment, they run the same gauntlet of criticism as The Impressionists, Picasso, or Caravaggio.
    And for what it’s worth, ‘Requiem For A Dream’ is magnificent, in my opinion.
    Best wishes, Pete.

Leave a Reply