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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: MOTHER! is the Surreal Feminist Environmental Horror Movie We Didn't Know We Needed

"Overwhelming" is often the first word that comes to mind when thinking about our world. From socio-political strife to nuclear war, climate change and natural disasters to the loss of human rights, there is so much to worry and be frustrated about. That is the sentiment that Aronofsky brings to his newest film, and "overwhelming" is perhaps the best way to describe Mother!

Mother! follows (literally, as I'll talk about later) a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) whose life is turned upside down as some surprise visitors show up at her home. Her poet husband (Javier Bardem) is oddly obliging to these strangers (the first of which are played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), and their presence slowly but surely brings destructive violence into the house that she has lovingly rebuilt for her husband. 

I should mention that no characters have proper names; Lawrence plays "mother" and Bardem plays "Him" with a capital "H". As the film progresses, this kind of vagueness plays into the fact that over time the story presents a kind of grand metaphor as it reaches its horrifying depths.

The film is told entirely from the point of view of mother; we're always either in her head, over her shoulder, or on an extreme close up of her face. We see nothing that she doesn't see, which lends the film an eerie intimacy and puts us squarely in her shoes. In many ways, Mother! is about how we treat women, and this extreme perspective limitation exceptionally augments that theme. We feel every little disservice, every offhandedly rude remark, and every sexist look she gets from the other characters in the film. Her husband agrees to let these strangers stay without consulting with her, leaves her alone after a violent altercation, but ultimately expects her to clean up the mess and be his rock through all of it.

The men in the film expect everything of mother, leaving messes and acting in childish manners, then scolding her for overreacting when something gets broken or goes wrong. Her hospitality is pushed to absurd, and eventually surreal, limits, and yet when she fights against it the others accuse her of being rude, or call her a bitch or a cunt. At the same time that he expects the world, her husband also doesn't trust her with anything; there's a careful inclusion of lots of "stay right there" and "I'll be right back," implying that we're going to let the men do the real work. It's a frustrating tug of war that is felt personally and is a real life struggle that leads smoothly into the insanity of the third act, where those problems are writ large on screaming, bloody tableaus.

I don't want to spoil the final act of the film because it is truly and spectacularly surprising. It takes the slightly surreal but mostly grounded story and ramps it up to levels of cosmic absurdity, in a similar way that The Fountain expertly blends fantasy, sci-fi, and reality. While the poster for the film is clearly meant to evoke Rosemary's Baby, I found myself thinking of films like Apocalypse Now and Children of Men throughout the chaotic and emotionally intense climax.

Given that the entire film focuses tightly on the character of mother, it lives and dies by Lawrence's performance. Thankfully, she brings a level of maturity and subtlety that takes advantage of the countless closeups, and her realization of the character draws us in and gave me the same discomfort in my gut that she was no doubt feeling. Bardem, too, gives a less flashy but also commendable performance; the way his character evolves throughout the film feels like a natural progression because his ticks and quirks in the beginning become more pronounced when the stakes are higher.

Mother! is an experimental film, one of its more surprising elements being that it has absolutely no non-diegetic score. Aronofsky often has excellent sound and music in his films (the scores to Requiem to a Dream and The Fountain in particular often find their way into my regular rotation), so what isn't surprising is how he handles the lack of it here. Rather than use music to influence the audience's emotions, the film exaggerates the ambient sounds in mother's world; every drop of mysterious medicine she puts in her water, every piece of broken glass that falls to the floor, every footstep on the floor above is heard with painstaking clarity and often ring out unnaturally like the lobby bell in Barton Fink. Jóhann Jóhannsson was apparently going to write the score, but he and Aronofsky agreed it worked best without music. Jóhannson still gets some kind of sound/music consulting credit, but major props to frequent sound collaborator of Aronofsky's Craig Henighan for the phenomenal sound work on Mother!

Darren Aronofsky's films are often about a struggle between the characters' inner and outer selves as they find ways to deal with addiction, obsession, and loss. Mother! manages to do this on both a grounded, intimate level with the way Lawrence's titular character is treated and on a much grander scale, suggesting that we look at her as a stand in for Mother Earth. Like 2014's Noah, there is certainly an environmental metaphor to be teased out here, with the unwanted house guests standing in for the human race, constantly testing our home and pushing its limits despite mother's constant and frustrated protestations.

Mother! stands as a potent and sharp-edged addition to Aronofsky's complex filmography. It's an experimental film that never bores or becomes too abstract; in fact, its more surreal elements feel like such perfect representations of the unbearable frustrations of its main character that they are as expected in some way as they are surprising. While it was written and produced much more quickly than most of his past films, it's clear that this was a passionate and fiery labor of love, and that depth of feeling and detail make Mother! one of the best films of the year thus far.

Mother! comes to theaters this Friday, September 15th, and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. It is written and directed by Darren Aronofsky.
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