mother! (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24Dec/170

mother! (2017)

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mother awakens to an empty house, waiting for Him to tell mother what he needs.  As mother tries to make progress restoring their home an escalating number of strangers appears to mock mother's wish for a baby.  Darren Aronofsky wrote the screenplay for and directs mother!, which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

Snark and sarcasm don't come easily to me.  I've always felt it better to write openly and honestly about my cinematic experiences so I can cut out the emotional distance some gimmicky writers employ.  Then there's mother!, a film whose title already invites an opportunity for snark (do I just refer to it as lowercase m mother exclamation point or alter the spelling for proper Mother! or what?)  By the time the centerpiece of mother! arrives, a exponentially destructive sequence lasting approximately thirty-eight minutes and eighteen seconds, I wasn't mortified so much as amused that writer/director Darren Aronofsky was going to, "go there."

When artists, "go there," it usually means one of two things.  The first is that the artist has so much confidence in their work that they need to follow it to its natural conclusion.  An example is  the arrival of alien angels followed by the destruction of the world in Alex Proyas' Knowing.  Then there's the reactionary, "go there," where immaturity follows a dense work that wasn't appreciated (I think of A Clockwork Orange here.)  Aronofsky has taken the latter path, having defined box office success on his own terms, and now sets the climax of mother! as the polar opposite of the gorgeous summoning of animals to the ark in Noah.

The performances in mother! carry the film when the images begin to numb. Javier Bardem is fabulous as a humorously indifferent Old Testament God.

Aronofsky hasn't been shy about borrowing from both the widely known and less read parts of the Old Testament.  If Noah was a relatively faithful recreation of the weirder bits of the Old Testament, then mother! is an allegory for the bits that make God out to be a sadist.  There are few faces in cinema more suited for this than Javier Bardem's.  Bardem hit his mainstream high playing an Old Testament God in No Country For Old Men, and with mother! he lets his face settle into expressions of glee as he (whose character is Him) summons temptations and demons to torment mother.

mother (intentionally lowercase in the cast like the title) is brought to life by Him and played by Jennifer Lawrence.  She takes an interesting approach here, spending most of mother! reacting to the increasing mayhem with fairly flat affectation as though mother's reading from a script.  This choice heightens Him's sadism as he continues to put mother through the wringer with a grin since he knows this will only end when he wants it to.  As Him traps mother, so too does Aronofsky keep Lawrence's face in a rectangular prison, filming most of mother! in close-up of her dismay at the horror that becomes her existence.

Lawrence isn't as subtle with her facial expressions as - say - Kristen Stewart, but Lawrence doesn't have to be.  mother is written with an invitation to overact and match the eventually absurd destruction, but Lawrence pulls back into a stupefied torpor - which feels natural considering whatever insanity is in front of her will be topped within the next few shots.  She makes for a great contrast to woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), as woman is able to "go there" in explicit ways while mocking mother's inability to sexually rouse her husband.  Pfeiffer, for her part, looks like she's having an absolute blast and mother!'s scant success comes from the borderline camp of Pfeiffer's childish taunts.

As for the rest of mother!, Aronofsky goes hard into allegorical Old Testament territory with the emphasis on maternity cranked up.  One of the few full-body shots of mother leaves little to the imagination as a thin night gown hugs her body into a darkened silhouette with her nipples peeking through.  She's like a beta version of Eve, self-aware enough to be shamed by Him in front of others but comfortable enough to embrace her femininity in the half-finished paradise of their home.  Pfeiffer's woman is Lilith to Lawrence's Eve, equal to then surpassing her male partner (man played by Ed Harris).

I miss seeing Michelle Pfeiffer ham it up, and taunting Jennifer Lawrence with her experienced wiles is a welcome return.

This is all intriguing stuff, but the absurdly over-the-top execution destroys the allegorical appeal of the material (which, I suppose, is still in-line with the Old Testament.)  Little dissuaded me from my belief that mother! was about the pressures on women to have children filtered through Old Testament archetypes.  The affect crumbles when special forces teams, complete with full armament, come crashing through mother's windows as yet another shocking one-up to the mobs tearing down her home.  Aronofsky was so invested in continuing the one-upmanship of himself that when mother's baby is ripped apart I could only chuckle then embrace a full belly laugh as mother started taking each piece of her baby back.  Then there are questionable decisions like the black midwife who appears magically to help deliver mother's baby.  Why the magical negro archetype had to appear in the middle of this allegorical Old Testament war zone is anybody's guess, but by that point I was so numb to the escalation I chalked it up to simple racism.

mother! exists for interpretation over experience, so once you've got your interpretation ready there's no reason to consider it further.  That said, I don't go to Aronofsky films for subtlety but there's a sincere humanism at the core of his best films (Pi, The Fountain.)  With mother! it's all pulverizing affect all the time.  This has worked before, but the Old Testament framework puts just enough conscious distance between the raw power of the best images and my reception to render them humorous at best to borderline pretentious at worst.

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mother! (2017)

Screenplay and written by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

Posted by Andrew

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