Review: mother!


By now you've heard that seemingly everyone hates mother!, a polarizing work of art-with-a-capital-A that might be best described as an anti-crowd pleaser. It's true - this enigma of a film is not for everyone, certainly not for the casual moviegoers seeking the bog standard horror flick unhelpfully promised by bait-and-switch marketing. Weird from the word go, mother! only gets weirder as it swells to a crescendo of surreal, fever-dream crazy that will bewilder, anger, shock and upset. Make no mistake: there will be walkouts. But for patrons with an appetite for the eccentric or a hunger for a bit more than popcorn flick fluff, mother! serves up a twisted allegory drenched in symbolism ripe for interpretation that's fun to watch and more fun to argue about after the credits roll.

From its opening scene, mother! signals it is a different kind of movie, welcoming us with flickering, dream-like visions: a face in flames, an otherworldly crystal, a house shedding its burnt-out husk to become beautiful, and finally a woman formed out of the ash - the titular Mother, played by Jennifer Lawrence. She shares this home with her husband, a poet played by Javier Bardem wrestling with writer's block without inspiration for his next great work. She clearly loves him, but he is distracted and distant. When she shows warmth, he withdraws and retreats to work, staring at blank pages. Still, she is devoted and pours herself into an all encompassing renovation of their home to create, she says, a paradise for him.

Then comes a knock at a door - the first of many to come that will throw Mother's happy quiet into chaos. A man (Ed Harris) mistakes their home for a bed and breakfast. Mother is wary but her husband, delighted to meet someone new, invites him to stay. The two are unnaturally fast friends, sitting up all night laughing and swapping stories. The next morning, to Mother's horror, the man's wife (Michele Pfeiffer) arrives. She is probing, inappropriate, and drips with contempt for Mother, but she too is invited to stay.

If mother! felt like a dream before, here it starts to creep towards hazy nightmare. mother! isn't a particularly scary film, but it is consistently disquieting. Mother begins to have disturbing visions (because this bonkers ride is best taken totally unspoiled, I'll leave it at that). As the unwanted visitors' ever-presence becomes suffocating to Mother, the film becomes claustrophobic thanks to camerawork fixed permanently and uncomfortably close to her face. The film has no real musical score, leaving our focus squarely on the sounds of life around the house. Experienced through Mother, they are cold and isolating. Even her beloved husband, delighted by the guests and their stories, increasingly disaffected by Mother's pain, seems alien.

There are more knocks, more (and worse) guests and mother! shifts from a psychological suspense drama to something more like a home invasion quasi-horror. And then, suffice it to say, the film goes places.

With the camera so intimately close to her for the entire two hour running time, this is Jennifer Lawrence's film and she performs admirably. Her role requires both great restraint and range, both of which she demonstrates. Some have complained that her Mother seems muted and inhuman. I wonder if that doesn't miss the point. More importantly the reserved Mother of the first act makes an explosively emotional second act all the more gut-churning. Lawrence is supported by secondary performances impressive in their own right. She and Michele Pfeiffer's wonderful, deliciously hateful wife share some of the film's best scenes. Ed Harris is perfectly affable. Javier Bardem's presence is appropriately but ambiguously menacing.

At some point while watching mother! you will have a "what the hell is happening" moment. And of course, what is happening is... well, it depends on who you ask. This is clearly a film about something other than the action on screen, but what exactly that is depends entirely on the viewer. mother! is a puzzle whose pieces can be put together into many different pictures, withholding "meaning" from those that do not look for it. Many disagree. mother! has been hammered by both those who see it as confusing, pointless provocation and those who argue that it is a pretentious and shallow film playing at high art - both meaningless and meaningful, just not meaningful enough. Perhaps. It wasn't to me.

There is one truly disappointing thing about mother!, though. Since the film's disappointing box office over the weekend, Darren Aronofsky has taken to explaining his intended "true meaning" in a series of widely publicized pieces. I hope this doesn't deter newcomers from finding their own. After all, isn't that what art is all about?

Score: 4 / 5



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