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mother!

About seven years ago, auteur Darren Aronofsky made a movie called Black Swan. It kicked ass. It was a phenomenal movie about the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual sacrifices involved in the constant journey for perfection. Even better, it walked a very fine line between reality and hallucination, with any number of possible interpretations as to what really happened and what that means for the greater gestalt of the movie.

While the film did win a Best Actress statuette for Natalie Portman, it narrowly lost Best Director and Best Picture in a white-hot Oscars race with The Social Network. It was nonetheless a rousing success, which Aronofsky followed up with Noah. It was really not that good. Yes, it was a box office hit at the time and the critical reception was good, but it never had anywhere near the cultural impact (or awards success) that Black Swan did. Possibly because the movie was way too caught up in its own epic aspirations to realize that it had turned Noah into a raging dickbag.

With that in mind, I was relieved to hear about mother!, Aronofsky’s latest offering. A psychological thriller starring an ingenue in her prime? Clearly, Aronofsky is going back to his comfort zone, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. Yes, the movie does benefit from the Black Swan touch, focusing on an obsessive female lead (played by Jennifer Lawrence) to deconstruct her various mental and psychological issues through visions and mental breakdowns. Unfortunately, the movie also suffers from The Fountain touch, in that the movie is deliberately opaque and throws all sorts of batshit imagery at us without any obligation to make any kind of sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

First, it’s worth noting that none of the characters are given names. So instead of my usual reviewing format — ie. using the characters’ names in reference to the characters and the actors’ names in reference to the actors — I’m just going to refer to the characters and actors by the same name.

The premise begins with Javier Bardem, a poet whose house burned down some unspecified amount of time ago. In the time since, his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rebuilding the entire house from top to bottom, all on her own. She’s hard at work rebuilding the house while he’s busy trying to write, and then Ed Harris comes along.

Harris and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) come into the house, bringing their multilayered personal drama with them. What follows… well, you know when houseguests come over and you’re stuck with the stress of cleaning up after them? The rest of the film is like that, on a scale that is quite literally apocalyptic.

I’ve heard it said that the film is overly misogynistic, and I can understand where that perspective is coming from. From start to finish, Lawrence is the subservient wife whose only duty is to tend to the house and eventually make babies while her husband goes on with his writing uninterrupted. She’s deeply underappreciated, to the point where everyone else takes her for granted. Everyone — including and especially her husband — simply offers suggestions or leaves things to do, certain in the knowledge that she’ll handle everything.

To be clear, it’s not like Bardem is an abusive husband, just negligent. He seems to think of everything and everyone else — himself, his guests, his written works, his career and his devoted fans, etc. — before he thinks of his wife. However, that perspective should be taken with a grain of salt, as we can clearly see that Lawrence is a horribly unreliable narrator.

This brings me to the biggest counterpoint for the misogyny argument: How the movie puts a clear and constant emphasis on the damage being done to Lawrence’s psyche. The way the movie is put together — with ubiquitous use of extreme close-up shots, handheld camerawork, and aggressive sound design — we’re never allowed to ignore the constant stress and growing deterioration of Lawrence’s mental state. There’s gaslighting, there are hallucinations, there are events so huge and people so outlandishly awful that there’s no way any of this could actually be happening. Ironically, all of this leads to the moment when everything falls apart.

I was with this movie up until the one-hour mark or so, when the baseline of reality got thoroughly nuked. Things fly so far off the rails in such impossibly catastrophic fashion that there is no conceivable way any of this could really be happening outside of Lawrence’s head. There’s no plot and no logic, just a solid hour of bloodshed, grotesque imagery, unspeakable acts, and ear-splitting noise. Goddamn Dunkirk — in 70mm projection! — was easier on the senses than the back half of this movie, and that movie actually had a plot!

I had absolutely no idea what to make of this movie. I had no answer as to why there were two such distinctly different halves, or why we even needed the back half at all. Yes, the movie had a few things to say about wanting to be loved and the concept of giving until there’s nothing left to give; but it was so hard taking any of these messages seriously, coming from a character so dangerously unstable and a movie that’s lost all grip on any kind of subjective reality.

But then I found this.

“It depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth,” [Jennifer Lawrence] said. “It’s not for everybody. It’s a hard film to watch. But it’s important for people to understand the allegory we intended. That they know I represent Mother Earth, Javier, whose character is a poet, represents a form of God, a creator; Michelle Pfeiffer is an Eve to Ed Harris’s Adam, there’s Cain and Abel and the setting sometimes resembles the Garden of Eden.”

…Oh. Well, why didn’t you say so?!

Yeah, that checks out in so many ways. And maybe it’s just me, but that totally went over my head. I never would’ve figured that out on my own, but the movie doesn’t make a damn bit of sense any other way. And even then, there are certain aspects of the story — the antipsychotic medication, Lawrence’s relationship with Pfeiffer, Lawrence’s habit of hallucinating, etc. — that still don’t make a lot of sense.

Before wrapping up, the cast certainly deserves mention. Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman with tremendous inner strength waiting to be pushed to the tipping point, Javier Bardem plays a loving husband of uncertain morality and intentions, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an assertive and self-absorbed beauty, Ed Harris plays a guy who’s easily liked if not entirely trustworthy… basically, all of the leads play to their strengths beautifully. Incidentally, Harris and Pfeiffer have two sons played by actual brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson. Stephen McHattie and Kristen Wiig are also among the powerful cameo players.

Taken as a work of narrative storytelling, mother! doesn’t make a lick of sense. The characters are all over the place, it’s impossible to establish any baseline of reality, and nothing is developed into anything coherent. But taken as a biblical metaphor for humanity’s relationship with God and our planet, it makes a lot of sense. Such a damn shame the film had to be so opaque about such an outlandish concept, though. If you’re lucky enough to see this movie armed with that knowledge, or if you’re clever enough to pick up on it for yourself, you’ll find a lot here to go over.

Overall, I’d say that this is definitely rental material. I absolutely recommend seeing it just to try something so beautifully unique and see if it’s your thing, but I’m sure all the extreme close-ups — not to mention that second half — would be easier to see on the small screen. Also, you’d have the option of stopping the movie partway through to pop in Dunkirk for the last half.

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