Film Review – mother!
Before I go any further (or anywhere at all actually) I would like to note that I like art, so much so I went to art school for my undergraduate degree. I admire ambition and want to reward films that exist outside a franchise or a reboot or a re-imagining of a 1970s television show. I have also tried over the years to learn to be kind to failure: to give snark a rest when I can. I want to like things. mother!, the new film by Darren Aronofsky definitely feels like a piece of art instead of something the film factories churn out to get butts in chairs and dollars in pockets. Unfortunately it also feels like “My First Art Movie” with an inflated budget. It pains me to dislike something that tries so hard to be more than just moving pictures, but I found it to be an empty – though not meaningless – spectacle.
Jennifer Lawrence is Mother (yeah, there are no names in this film, only archetypes) and she is married to Him (Javier Bardem). He is a poet whose words have dried up, and she tries to gently support him while rebuilding his damaged house. (SHE IS LITERALLY A HOMEMAKER, PEOPLE.) One evening, their quiet reverie is interrupted by a man (Ed Harris), who is looking for a nearby boarding house. Much to Mother’s befuddlement, Him invites the man to stay with them for the night. The man indulges in some odd behavior, that Him (he) does not notice or care about. He smokes in the house, drinks too much, and vomits up something strange into the toilet. Things get even weirder when the man’s nosy and acerbic wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) joins them the next day. And once again, for no reason Mother can figure out, her husband invites them to stay in their paradise as long as they want. The Man and Woman’s sons show up, an act of violence is committed, and soon a wake is held in the house, with more and more newcomers behaving in stranger and stranger ways. Turns out the poet has some creepy fans (the Man and Woman being two of them) who are seeking just a little bit of his time. Time that Mother does not want her husband to give.
This is one of those films that really only makes sense when everything comes together in the last moments, and the whole point is made clear. And then you either get it or you don’t. And you either like it or you don’t, which, if I have not made myself clear, I did not. It’s an allegory, which is fine, but it all just felt so banal and cliché when everything was wrapped up. The film is intensely hallucinogenic in parts, and while I found those bits frustrating, the sheer artistry of them worked for me. (Although I have to say I found this to be a surprisingly visually unimpressive film. There’s a lot of interesting movement, but it’s dark and grainy and unlovely.) What’s this film about? Well, there’s a lot of Christian symbolism about creation, destruction, and rebirth. There’s also some subtext about the violence of male creation. This film has very much a lot going on visually, and when I got to the denouement, it was a “That’s it?” kind of moment. We went though all that sturm and drang for some not-particularly deep thoughts about creativity and/or god? Hmph.
There is also the problem of the characters. Because they are archetypes, there is really nothing there except a very narrow set of behaviors to observe. We have no glimpse into their inner lives because they do not have any. I think Jennifer Lawrence is a fine actor, but she is given nothing here to do except embody motherhood. Oh, and not wear a bra. (I guess it makes sense there would be no bras in paradise, but it sure helps to solidify her status as an object for the camera. As do a couple of butt shots.) Really, only Michelle Pfeiffer is given anything fun to do, and she is ferociously good here. And very funny. I guess I would be remiss if I did not mention how funny this film is when it’s not being important. At its core this is a film about ideas, but those ideas aren’t very interesting or novel. I recently read a story about The West Wing (I think) and that Aaron Sorkin always had conversations taking place while characters were walking because it gave the scene an sense of urgency that just standing around talking could not. I kept thinking about that while I was watching mother!. It needed all of that frenetic movement to provide an intensity its story could not deliver. It’s not horrible, but I found it deeply frustrating to the point where I am not sure if it’s a noble failure or just pretentious silliness. I’ve read some of the reviews that have already come out, and a lot of people seem to think this is a daring tour de force. And I think that’s true. But it can be that and still not be particularly good.