Deus Ex Aronofsky
Slowly the electricity comes back to Miami, allowing me once more to take my rightful place as the critic of the generation, when I hear a faint jingle. A tune I have not heard in some time. Why it’s Indie Art House Corner *cue children’s cheer track;* it’s where the budgets are low, the concepts are high, and nothing makes sense. Today’s entry comes from the auteur director of auteur directors, Darren Aronofsky. I’ve liked quite a few of his films in the past, and I even love Black Swan in particular. However, I have noticed that he does have a particular fascination with artists’ lives as chaotic messes in which everything and everyone around them turns to ash in creation as well as his fondness for imagery heavily connected with Judeo-Christian theology…so why not make a film about both?
Really going to try to keep this spoiler-free as I can, but know that this film is basically an allegory for something having to do with religion. I’ll go into more detail after the rating about what it is if you have already seen the film (all eight of you based on the box office) or if you don’t mind that concept being spoiled. Personally, it was exposed to me what this film was about beforehand and still got plenty to be surprised by. But some hipsters would rather figure everything out on their own terms, so I’ll give them the courtesy of a massive spoiler warning.
For now, all you need to know is that Jennifer Lawrence plays the young wife to a poet played by Javier Bardem (no the movie doesn’t give their characters names except in the cast list as “mother” and “Him” respectively). The pair live in a large circular home in the middle of an open field while Bardem busies himself with his next great piece until an old man (Ed Harris) appears and the poet welcomes him to stay with open arms when the man reveals himself to be a fan of the poet’s work. Lawrence’s character is concerned about this stranger, but tries to go along with accommodating their guest…until the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) also appears out of nowhere and quite rudely makes herself at home in the house. After one trouble that shakes the poet’s trust in his guests occurs, the poet demands they leave until the couple’s sons (Domhall and Brian Gleeson) show up (yep, out of nowhere) to argue about their inheritance. And after an altercation ends in tragedy, more people show up (you guessed it, out of bloody nowhere) that are fans of the poet or just start making themselves at home in Lawrence’s house as she starts to feel like her world is spiraling out of control. Shit…completely escalates from here on out.
Actually, “escalates” is under-selling what the hell you witness. This movie goes berserk seven ways from Sunday incorporating dream logic, striking imagery, and relentless graphic violence as the movie progresses. It’s really not hard to understand what is going especially if you just go with the fact the movie is of the same ilk of “has the world gone crazy or am I just insane” that made films like Brazil a darling in critic circles. However, these kinds of movies do test the patience of audience members constantly asking themselves, “What the hillbilly doodad?” I must confess that I have strong suspicion that I probably would not have liked this film as much as I did (which is more than zero, cool your jets) had I NOT known about the allegorical element beforehand. Instead, the experience turned into a more psychoanalytic experience of trying to decipher what certain scenes were meant to represent. Do bear in mind that I’m not sitting here self-congratulating myself for figuring a lot of it out because a). only people fond of intellectual masturbation like that and b). being told about the symbolic significance beforehand makes the scenes really obvious of what they’re supposed to represent.
But of course all of this clever symbolism must lead to the question: does that make the movie good? Which is where I must say that I really didn’t like my time with the film. Don’t get me wrong, everything you witness is memorable and I doubt I’m going to forget anything I witnessed in mother! for years to come, but the movie ultimately left me cold. Which is curious to me as the film does touch up on themes of the tortured artists previously explored in Aronofsky’s own The Wrestler and Black Swan, but those films had very relatable characters being through hell and back that you immediately sympathized with and felt true pity towards them. With mother!, Jennifer Lawrence does her best to inject as much personality into her role while everyone else does the bare minimum to the do the same. That’s because everyone besides Lawrence is portraying a metaphor or a symbol, so they’re not really characters they’re just portraying ideas and that’s far more difficult to do. While Lawrence herself plays a concept, she still reminded Aronofsky that symbolism means not much at all if you don’t have a character to go with and so she achieves a degree of relatability that is unobtainable by the rest of the cast.
Now some might say the rest of the cast didn’t need to be logical or relatable because all of them represent a world that’s lost any sanity while Lawrence is left as the lone voice of reason. But then I recalled what was going on to Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan and her relationship with various people that kept going back and forth between “normal” and bug-molesting crazy. That’s when I saw mother! as being far closer in kin to something like Birdman than anything else: a surreal exercise in voicing the trials and tribulations facing artists and the people that love them. Unlike Birdman, the focus is entirely on the spouse of a creative person and how that relationship is strained both by a mad artist’s creative delusions of grandeur and the artist’s wallowing in the adoration of fans. At this point, you realize that Javier Bardem’s poet is supposed to represent Darren Aronofsky’s own views as an artist and you’ll either understand him, or want to wrap your hands around his throat for being such an arrogant prick.
I fell more into the later category, and my own emotional reaction was extremely visceral. Though not as visceral as the insane third act of the film where this quiet little house becomes a war film out of nowhere. No I did not start talking about Dunkirk while talking about mother!, the house in which the film spends the entirety of the run time as the setting as plays host to an all out war between the various people intruding the home. All of this includes Kristen Wiig who was first introduced as the poet’s publicist more than halfway through the movie and you next find her rounding up intruders of the home, putting bags over their heads, and blowing their brains out.
THAT is only the tip of the iceberg of insanity you witness. The final act of this movie is graphic, and sometimes hard to watch in how intense the violence on display is (and I saw Mel Gibson’s last film and Detroit). Also, if you are the parent of a newborn or are expecting a child very soon…you might want to skip this. There are some things you really don’t want in your mind.
You might be surprised to find I have not said anything about how scary this film is, and that’s because it’s not. The trailers are dirty little liars about what the film they’re marketing actually is. I would only say this would be a horror film for anyone closely related to an artist, but for everyone else the movie is simply graphic. Granted, even with some of the most disturbing I’ve seen (Antichrist, the first few minutes of Serbian Film and Cannbial Holocaust), this film doesn’t even crack my top 5 most disturbing films, though that probably says more about me than the movies themselves.
I’m ultimately very conflicted on how to approach my own opinion of the movie. On one hand: it has memorable imagery, great acting from Lawrence, high concept ideas that are communicated effectively, and solid camera work that puts you right into the eyes of these characters. On the other hand: it’s intellectual masturbation that has very little to offer outside of one solid idea involving feminism that’s somewhat undermined (more on that in the spoilers) and I was left cold to any of the characters because the director was having to much fun stroking his ego. This film will not make my top ten of the year, but I’m still recommending a very, very, very niche audience of people who love high concept, allegorical films with striking avant garde styles. Everybody else should avoid mother! because it will piss you off for one reason or another. For leaving me with a strong emotional reaction while acknowledging its major flaws, this is getting a solid…
Alright spoiler time. If you haven’t seen the film and want to crack what this movie is all about on your own, tune out now. Everyone else, meet me after the picture below as I go into depth of what’s going on in this movie.
mother! is basically the grimdark reboot of the Bible no one asked for. Ed Harris is basically Adam, Michelle Pfeiffer is Eve, Javier Bardem is God, the house is the world, the poem Bardem is working on is Holy Scripture, and Lawrence is Mother Nature. Before you wonder how I’m so sure of this conclusion, this is basically Jennifer Lawrence’s own words about the movie that her boyfriend directed. Yes Lawrence and Aronofsky are dating in real life, given everything that happens to her character, you’re free to make your own interpretations about their relationship.
On top of that, a through line is reached about how Bardem’s poet’s desire to create mirror God’s own desire with creation as well as the toxic relationship the artist has with his fans mirroring fanatical believers in religion. To be honest, this is where the film lost me hard as the movie doesn’t do much to expound on the concept of an artist playing God beyond what has been done elsewhere thousands of times. What is interesting is the role Mother Nature plays into all of this.
It’s clear that Mother Nature is a creation of God and it’s also clear that she is subservient to God up to a point. She’ll try to support Him with whatever whim He wants to please his worshipers, but that still won’t stop them from abusing their world, while also beating, belittling and raping Mother Nature whenever the believers’ demands are not met. This of course leads to a breaking point where Nature has enough of the people’s abuses and just ends everything leaving only Nature in a weakened, destroyed state while God is left untouched before He starts the creative process all over again with a new Mother.
This is why I still I liked the movie despite my reservations with other areas. The angle that women that are routinely abused in service of male-oriented goals and they are expected to simply forgive the abusers with no justice awaiting them. It’s a pretty bleak truth when you lay it all out and I think would have had more resonance were it not for the fact that artist’s own ego couldn’t help but get in the way of the message. Lots of layers to unpack that merits several pieces of discussion, but as can be seen…this shit really isn’t for everybody.