Arts movie review

‘Mother!’ is a discomforting fever dream

Darren Aronofsky presents the surrealist film ‘Mother!’



Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Aronofsky’s Mother! begins with the silence of still water, perturbed only by ominous pulses. A simmer is reached and ultimately, the film ends with a deafening eruption that leaves a void of silence — the only thing resembling catharsis in the whole film. Jennifer Lawrence plays the helpless and demure character of Mother, a wife that works dutifully on repairing the house of her poet husband, named Him (Javier Bardem), who is suffering from serious writer’s block. A series of bizarre events follow in an increasingly strange fever dream that, despite the confusing logic that dictates it, resolves in a profound climax.

The film can be clearly divided into two halves. The first half is replete with weighted pauses and unspoken discomfort. Lawrence and Bardem are physically together but it feels as though they are inhabitants of their own universes, with Mother forced out of Him’s (His?) emotional state. At one point, Mother wants to cook a big meal as a small celebration after her meticulous labor on the house — “I’ve been working so hard.” She smiles at Him. “Yeah… right.” her husband replies in a tone that skirts the line between disbelief and apathy. His distant eyes, directed seemingly everywhere but his wife, betray an almost callous indifference. After an uninvited guest, a chain-smoking surgeon (Ed Harris), arrives and professes to be an enormous fan of the writer, the isolation that Mother feels is tainted by a slowly growing discomfort at the series of small infractions that the guest makes.

It is worth highlighting the vision that Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have infused this movie. It is precisely the handheld camera that closely follows Lawrence, and the multitude of reaction shots that distill the emotional isolation and helpless discomfort that Mother feels. When the surgeon’s wife, a seductive vixen played by Michelle Pfeiffer, appears, we see Mother’s discomfort elevated to a near breaking point, which serves as a catalyst for the second half of the film in which a series of circumstances drives Mother further and further past her level of tolerance. In one scene, the four characters are eating dinner when Pfeiffer’s character makes the remark that the writer and his wife must really love each other, and, when prompted why by Mother, comments, “Well... because you two are so different.” The camera cuts to Bardem, who looks down with a distant hollowness, and quickly to Lawrence, who has a look of mild concern and discomfort at hearing what appears to be the truth.

Though the tension is certainly palpable, the film does fall somewhat flat in terms of the character dialogue. Exchanges such as the one between the poet and his wife who he feels doesn’t appreciate his work (“But I love your work!”) come off as contrived, as does the praise that the surgeon lavishes on the poet (“Your work saved me.”) Nevertheless, Lawrence’s and especially Pfeiffer’s performances are compelling, and the film’s narrative is largely visual in nature.

The second half of the movie is surrealistic hysteria, where the sense of frenetic madness sizzles begins to boil over. The poet’s inspired work is an instant hit, and thousands of people begin to flock to the house to gain sight of his work. A blur of strange pillaging, violence, and at one point, cannibalism, occurs, and Mother is pushed far past fever pitch. Aronofsky uses a “dream-logic” throughout the film, which, he admits, “if you try to unscrew… it kind of falls apart.” This may frustrate some viewers, but fans of Aronofsky and cinephiles alike will likely take pleasure in the references to Fellini’s seminal 8 1/2. Besides the trope of writer’s block, Aronofsky’s morphing sequences as the poet’s fans began to wreak havoc are reminiscent of the carnival scene in 8 1/2, as disparate elements blend together in an aesthetically busy whole. The final scene is crushing, and we witness a cyclic recursion to the beginning of the film as cryptic as the preceding scenes.

When the credits roll, we are left in a hazy fugue in the wake of a movie that is emotionally devastating and structurally resonant. Aronofsky does a fine job in a powerful and explosive conclusion, and it is left to us to marvel at the leftover carnage.