It’s a creation myth! It’s about how men gaslight women! It’s about climate change! It’s a bizarre human comedy! It’s a crazed mix of Luis Bunuel, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Swan and a dash of La La Land! Whatever mother! is, don’t forget those exclamation points.
I’ve already read way too much about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, and if you’ve seen the film, you know I’m right. It’s best to go in relatively cold. Because every explainer and analysis that tries to paint it as a divine Biblical allegory isn’t wrong, but it never fully captures how flat out, bat shit crazy this movie is.
Aronofsky has pitched his entire film at the highest level of animosity and paranoia. It dizzyingly circles a close-up of Jennifer Lawrence’s head as he orchestrates untold chaos, the likes of which invoke everything from frustratingly rude dinner party guests to the apocalypse.
mother! opens in the throws of fire and brimstone. A mansion torched and charred turns back time and reveals a picturesque country home in the center of a wide open prairie. There’s a burnt heap of ashes on the bed before it morphs into Jennifer Lawrence, who turns toward the camera looking wide eyed and catatonic from the beginning. She’s been repairing this home while her husband (Javier Bardem), a writer far above her in age, attempts to start his next collection of poetry. But he hasn’t written a word. He seems to ignore her in subtle ways, half acknowledging her while at the same time brushing off her ideas.
Suddenly a man (Ed Harris) arrives at their home looking for shelter. At first he seems to be a stranger, but he’s a fan of her husband and even has a photo in his bag. The writer nurses him after a heavy night of drinking, but we get a blink-and-miss-it glimpse that the man has a new wound where he seems to be missing a rib. The next morning a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) appears and says she’s the man’s wife. They’re invasive, they break things, they smoke despite Mother’s rules, and no matter how much she politely pleads or nags, they won’t go, and the writer seems far too hospitable, ignoring all of his wife’s concerns.
When I first heard this described as an allegory, it almost seemed too obvious, and writing about it has you falling into the same traps of drawing parallels and symbolism that makes Aronofsky seem like he’s laying it on thick. mother! is intense, with no off switch or down moment where you don’t feel dread and bewilderment, but it’s never transparent and obvious in its symbolism.
And those readings don’t account for the many other tantalizing clues and maddening behavior that Aronofsky uses to amplify the psychosis. What is the glistening gold serum Mother drinks to quell what she thinks are delusions, or that ear splitting ringing she hears? Does any allegory account for how gloriously flirty and bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer is in this movie?
mother! really starts hitting its stride when more and more uninvited, random people begin swarming into Mother’s house, each of them lovingly welcomed and embraced by the writer with no regard that she’s even there. Aronofsky stages magnificent unbroken takes that relentlessly whisk us from one bizarre encounter to the next. These social interactions are often hilariously blunt and awkward. One old man barges in on Mother in the bathroom and acts as if he belonged there. Two guests suddenly start painting her foyer and give her lip as though she was being the rude one. She then tries to wrangle some guests attempting to physically destroy her sink, and all the while, a dude tries to pick her up. When she tries to brush him off, he calls her a cunt. It’s an engrossing mix of black satire mixed with this feeling that she’s being gaslighted, made to feel like she’s the insane one at every turn.
Part of the narrative surrounding the release of mother! was that it was so poorly marketed. The film scored an “F” grade from CinemaScore in early exit polls of average moviegoers who expected a traditional horror/thriller. But the horror lies in these twisted acts of hospitality and politeness. Anyone who has faced these micro aggressions regularly will recognize mother! as the scariest movie of the year.
And so much credit should be given to Lawrence, who meekly and helplessly gets caught in this world, slowly dipping into madness before she’s howling in agony and anger. She starts the film resembling a deer in headlights, and by the end she’s gone absolutely feral.
Frankly, there’s still a lot of untapped insanity I wouldn’t dare to spoil or attempt to describe. The movie becomes such an endless parade of monstrosities and horrors that it could either be a masterpiece or it could be far too on the nose and demented. There’s not much of a middle ground.
But for however polarizing mother! will be, Aronofsky’s film is too nuts and demanding of discussion to just ignore.