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mother! (Movie Review)

mother! (Movie Review)
09.16.2017by: Eric Walkuski
6 10

PLOT: A woman's tranquil life with her husband is shattered when a series of uninvited guests arrive at their country house and make themselves at home.

REVIEW: I'll be honest: I don't know what mother! is all about. Not exactly, anyway. This movie is neck-deep in metaphorical symbolism, with almost everything that happens in it open to interpretation. There will be some who claim to really get it, who can fully digest everything writer-director Darren Aronofsky is throwing their way, and there will be those who are totally lost, doomed to walk out of the theater in a "WTF did I just see?" stupor. I consider myself somewhere in the middle. Some of Aronofsky's storytelling is easy enough to analyze, but there are aspects of the film - especially in the wild third act - that I remain confounded by.

All of that is to say, mother! isn't your average horror film (even though the marketing campaign thus far would lead you to believe it is). Yes, Aronofsky draws heavily from Roman Polanski, with allusions to ROSEMARY'S BABY fully unavoidable, but the director has way more on his mind than making a simple scare picture. That shouldn't be a surprise, considering this is the man who brought us THE FOUNTAIN and BLACK SWAN, and the stuff he has on his mind is, shall we say, wide-ranging. Aronofsky is able to fit heavy commentary on fame, marriage, religion, death - to name a few overt themes - in a two hour movie that begins as a creepy sort-of home invasion thriller and ends as an apocalyptic nightmare that, for all I know, provides the meaning of Life itself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For about an hour, give or take, mother! is a very satisfying mood piece that is unnerving, intriguing and darkly funny. Things start off on a very surreal note - we see a woman enveloped in fire, followed by imagery of a burned-up house being resurrected by an apparently magical crystal - but things settle down a little as we watch the domestic drama that unfolds between a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband (Javier Bardem). (Neither character is given a name, and only a look at the credits will reveal that she is referred to as "mother" and he as "Him.") The man is a tortured genius; he is famous for writing a book of transcendent poetry but recently finds the words are not coming. She dotes on him, has given her life over to making sure he has everything he needs. (This extends to evidently building him the house they currently live in, a recreation of a home he lost in a fire.) He treats her kindly but it's possible he blames her for his lack of inspiration; if so, she takes his attitude in stride and eagerly awaits the moment he puts pen to paper again.

One night, they receive a visitor: a man (Ed Harris) claiming to be a doctor is seeking out a bed and breakfast. Him welcomes the stranger with open arms almost immediately, while his wife looks on perplexed. The man is somewhat odd, has a very bad cough, but he and Him get along famously (do they secretly know each other, we wonder) and the man is guaranteed a place to stay as long as he wants. Things escalate the next day when the stranger's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) appears, also ready to settle in. She proves to be even more intrusive than her husband, making herself at home with snotty disdain for her host. mother is cordial, as much as she can be, although these new visitors consider her with a mixture of condescension and scorn for no discernible reason. Then their sons show up. Things are about to get unpleasant.

Up until this point, mother! has been operating on a surreal but still plausible level. Unfolding like an escalating nightmare, we have plenty of questions as to how legitimate all of this is (no one seems to have a car; where exactly is everyone arriving from?), but we're willing to go with it because the movie is exuding a sort of eerie dream logic that is hypnotic. Lawrence is our anchor and her performance is spot-on: mother is understandably troubled by the events occurring within her home - a home she built, we're never allowed to forget - but she's almost powerless to stop them. (Especially considering the way Bardem's character treats these things like they're perfectly commonplace.) Harris and Pfeiffer are both superb, with Pfeiffer in particular radiating sexy menace. (Her withering stares in Lawrence's direction are things of beauty.) The film's sound design is a horror movie fan's dream, all creaking floorboards, foreboding knocks at the door, half-heard conversations emanating from afar, creepy silences. Aronofsky has crafted a very engaging, claustrophobic chamber play and has made us simultaneously curious and uneasy about where this is all going.

It is at a crucial juncture toward the film's third act that things stop being plausible, dream logic or not, and we're virtually thrust directly into Aronofsky's psyche. Frankly, all hell breaks loose; we might even be in hell. Aronofsky assaults our senses with a battery of jarring images and sounds and ideas, and it's up to us to survive the onslaught, come out the other side, and dissect what we've just witnessed. I won't describe the events of the film's third act, nor can I, really, but I will say it turns out the movie is about plenty more than what I reckoned. For a while Aronofksy has clearly been making a statement about the pitfalls of being married to a celebrity, and the way your life is trampled and intruded upon when you're involved with a creative genius (oh, Darren!), but then it became clear to me that we were in the midst of some kind of mad examination of the Bible, God, and Creation. I still don't know if I'm right.

The second half of mother! is extreme and jaw-dropping; no doubt your eyes will be glued to the screen as were mine. But does it work? Metaphors and hidden meanings aside, does Aronofsky reward our incredulity by delivering a satisfying picture? I can't be sure after just one viewing. I can absolutely admit that I prefer the first half of the film to the over-the-top second half; when mother! started going really loopy, I started to distance myself from it. I was fascinated by what the director was doing, but I had lost actual investment in the story, because clearly Aronofsky was now unpacking a whole lot of guilt and using the medium as a form of therapy in a way I couldn't connect with. As it seems to me, mother! is ultimately a movie made for one person to fully understand: Darren Aronofsky.

The actors are certainly all-in, everyone is phenomenal. Lawrence is in frame nearly every single scene, so she is carrying the entire madhouse on her back. It's a demanding role, and she gives a gutsy performance and makes for a wholly sympathetic protagonist. Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are outstanding, making these already thought-provoking characters even more captivating. If nothing else, this movie has been cast perfectly.

It's near impossible to give mother! a grade; some movies can't easily be summed up with a simple number. I'll go with a 6, for now, but who knows, maybe that'll change. I do know that Aronofsky has created something wholly unique and baffling; I can't tell if I love it, hate it, admire it, resist it. It absolutely needs to be seen at least once more, maybe a half dozen times, and even then I can't be sure I'll know what the film's intended purpose is. You can't say that about a lot of movies lately, especially studio pictures, so it won't be denied that mother! distinguishes itself in a big way. No matter what you think of it, you'll never be able to say it's the same old thing.

Extra Tidbit: mother! opens on September 15th

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