This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Genre: Horror, Drama
Darren Aronofsky’s catalogue of work shows a fascination with horror grounded in reality and a powerful ability to shake his audience to their core. Whether it be drug addiction (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) or insanity (BLACK SWAN), Aronofsky seems intent on showing a darker, more disturbing side of humanity than most filmmakers dare to explore. With his new film MOTHER!, the writer-director dives once again into pure terror, but this time he refuses to use a formal narrative grounded in reality. Aronofsky’s latest could serve as a modern Biblical retelling, an allegory of the way people have mistreated our planet, or an outright parable of misogynistic violence. Regardless, most people won’t have the stomach for the result: a shocking, chaotic, and ultimately unclear 115 minutes. MOTHER! may be one of the most confounding and controversial films of 2017 thus far, but it also stands out as one of the year’s best.
In MOTHER!, none of the characters are ever named, something I only realized when the credits rolled. Jennifer Lawrence’s character is named “Mother” and Javier Bardem’s role as her husband is simply credited as “Him.” While Bardem, a semi-successful poet, attempts to write his latest book, Lawrence rebuilds her husband’s home, which burned down in a fire years ago. The two enjoy a tranquil but isolated life until a host of unexpected, mysterious guests disturb their quiet existence. An older couple arrives first and the husband oddly insists that the two stay with them despite Lawrence’s weak protests. More unwanted guests turn up, bringing with them a storm of chaos and violence. They brutally tear apart Lawrence’s beloved house and cause her to question the delicate relationship she has with her husband.
Jennifer Lawrence trying to escape her adoring fans
The film makes a jarring transition from its second to its third act with both its plot and tone. Nail-biting tension and shocking moments fill most of MOTHER!, but the most intense, tumultuous scenes come in the film’s alarming final act. I watched several scenes of the film’s final 30 minutes through my shaking fingers. Several movies this year have left me unsettled (DUNKIRK, IT COMES AT NIGHT, and GOOD TIME come to mind), but MOTHER! gave me something no film has in 2017: an absolute and total feeling of terror. Needless to say, this reaction stayed with me hours after I left the theater.
All of the actors play their parts wonderfully, including Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer in smaller roles as the older couple, and Kristen Wiig appearing in an unexpected cameo. But it is Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem that shine the brightest as the two leads. Lawrence’s horrified reactions to watching her house and family destroyed take your breath away, and critics and audiences alike will certainly give her heavy consideration when awards season comes around. Bardem’s performance is equally impressive—Him is a terrifying character in both his thoughtless actions towards and mistaken love for Mother. In a particularly memorable sequence near the end, Bardem yells out in desperation to his wife, “I love you.” Lawrence coldly replies, “You don’t love me, you just love that I love you!” Both actors put their heart and soul into their individual roles and it shows. Even with Lawrence’s and Bardem’s strong performances, though, it’s clear this is Darren Aronofsky’s movie. It takes not only talent but guts to make something so raw and unique, and Aronofsky succeeds at creating a film that is completely his. It might not be his best work, but MOTHER! is without a doubt his most personal.
My face during the last 30 minutes of MOTHER!
Even though MOTHER! was marketed to be similar to Roman Polanski’s horror classic ROSEMARY’S BABY, I felt stronger influences from David Lynch and his films ERASERHEAD, LOST HIGHWAY, and MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Like MOTHER!, abstract ideas and disturbing images fill the plots of Lynch’s movies and jolt you from reality, but—more importantly—these movies don’t always make complete sense by the end. Lynch once said, “I don’t know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense,” and I think that is true for MOTHER! as well. Many people might be put off by the delirious content of the film. Even more will be dismayed by the movie because it leaves no easy answer, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it. You can interpret MOTHER! a hundred different ways, a sure sign of Aronofsky’s skill at telling an ambiguous story.
Another thing that caught my attention throughout MOTHER! is Aronofsky’s depiction of women, particularly Lawrence’s Mother. Lawrence suffers verbal, emotional, and physical turmoil that can be impossibly hard to watch. In addition to that, she is slighted and ignored at nearly every turn by the guests and even Bardem. Aronofsky clearly tries to send a message about the way men treat women in our society today through Lawrence and her relationship with Bardem’s character. Regardless, the despicable violence and cruelty used against her towards the end seemed excessive and over-the-top. At times, I couldn’t help but wonder how different the film would be if a female writer had written it with or instead of Aronofsky.
If anyone is reading this who hasn’t yet watched MOTHER!, brace yourself. This is not a typical horror movie; it is disturbing, frightening, and—particularly in its final act—very cruel. Half the people in my theater alone ended up walking out in either disgust or fear. The last thing I wish to do is discourage anyone who wants to see it, but I want people to understand what they’re getting into. Why then, am I recommending such a film? Because, more than anything else, MOTHER! challenges you. It captivates you and keeps your eyes glued to the screen in spite of yourself. It disturbs you and makes you stay on the edge of your seat. Ultimately, the film has one purpose—to shake you to your core. And everyone who watches it can agree: MOTHER! fulfills its purpose.