Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Barden, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris
A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.
Runtime: 2h 1m
Every film Darren Aronofsky makes is about obsession. From Sean Gullette’s mathematician in Pi, to Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer in Black Swan, to Russell Crowe’s Biblical boat-building bloke in Noah. The writer/director traces the singular focus that pushes his characters forward towards some form of transcendence, self-destruction, or – more typically – a bit of both.
Mother! is more of the same in that regard, although with a more allegorical (and far less rewarding) bent. Jennifer Lawrence is the nameless beau of the similarly anonymous Javier Bardem. Everything she does is in pursuit of giving her beloved the space he needs to follow his muse. He’s a poet, though he hasn’t written anything in a bit. Meanwhile, she’s been busy renovating the house into a “paradise” for him. His work is his obsession, above all else. Including, it seems, paying her any kind of romantic attention. Then again, giving him room for that is her own obsession. It’s an old-fashioned marital arrangement which, as the story plays out, isn’t so much regressive as it is dull.
The action never strays further than their porch, and nobody ever gets a name, even when the number of players expands: first with the arrival of Ed Harris as a constantly-coughing doctor, then Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife, then all manner of other interlopers (including Domhnall Gleeson as their son, and Kirsten Wiig as Bardem’s publisher) who threaten to both literally and figuratively destroy the sanctuary. Lawrence’s character gamely attempts to accommodate them into her paradise, but – as anybody who has had to be the responsible one at a student house party, remaining sober and stopping people from breaking the furnishings – finds herself pushed to breaking point when the poet’s numerous fans begin storming the place.
With this setup, Mother! is impossible to engage with on anything but an allegorical level. This is not reality – it’s a movie – or any believable facsimile of it. Instead, it’s a long, drawn-out metaphor for the artistic process. The creative mind struggles not only to find time to create but also to spare the energy to be a regular person with a life and family. Any artist has to be selfish and egotistical, to a point, before eventually relinquishing what they’ve made to an audience. Of course, it helps that society is geared in such a way that women take on the emotional labour their creatively-minded spouses haven’t the use for. That’s Bardem struggling to work, and Lawrence trying to maintain his “paradise” before becoming desperate to regain his attention when the outside world comes a-knockin’.
None of that is a stretch, nor a mad subtextual reading of what happens on screen. It’s more or less how it’s set up from the very first scene. There is no subtext. Which means that, subsequently, it’s difficult to care about anything that happens over the two hours that follow. Every single character is a cipher, more so than in most fiction, purely symbolic and nothing more. There’s a hot minute where it seems as if Lawrence may, in fact, be a stand-in for every one of the great woman behind every great man in history, the long-suffering wives and partners who sacrificed their own lives to making sure their artistic partners are comfortable, undisturbed by the responsibilities of mere mortals. Except then Mother! doubles down on her not being real in any tangible sense and things go to crazy town.
Actually, never that crazy. All the pre-release hub-bub about this being a boundary-pushing rollercoaster has been vastly overstated. If anybody had any kind of depth beyond what they represent, there might be some Pinter-esque menace to the slow to the “invasion” of Lawrence’s home by a succession of figures who pay little mind to her protestations, or some von Trier-style catharsis when things get (relatively) nasty in the final reel. But they don’t, and there isn’t. Just some black comedic laughs whenever her requests that people stop breaking things, bothering her or using her bathroom without permission are completely ignored, and then some CGI nonsense at the end, and not a lot else. None of the extreme psychological or body horrors suggested up top ever come to bear, and even if they had, the effect would have been deadened by the evident artifice of it all.
On a technical level, Mother! is competently made. The house is nice. Every actor bears up well in the face of extreme close-ups and a script which calls for entirely inconsistent characters. There’s never a boom mic dangling into shot. But a house built on rotten foundations will collapse no matter how many coats of varnish you apply. Aronofsky’s central point is simply not that interesting, the cinematic equivalent of a blocked writer penning a story about a blocked writer, and after introducing it almost immediately after the title card and developing it not a jot. The punctuation of the title is emphatic, but it deserves an equivocal one in response: who cares?