What begins as a home invasion horror, gradually escalates into a critiquing allegory of human nature and present-day society. Ambitious? Yes. Confusing? No. Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, Mother! sees its director return to the motifs of rebirth and theology that run throughout his filmography, though this time with success akin to Black Swan and Noah rather than confusion as with The Fountain.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as ‘Mother’, alongside Javier Bardem as ‘Him’. The married couple live in seclusion, though where or exactly when, we’re not told. The supporting cast includes Ed Harris as ‘Man’ and Michelle Pfeiffer as ‘Woman’ in addition to Brian Gleeson as ‘Younger Brother’ and Domhnall Gleeson as ‘Oldest Son’. Aside from Aronofsky’s creative knack for character names, this rounds out the main ensemble.
Structured over three acts, the first two play out as a horror/mystery, leaving the viewer asking questions such as, “Why is the house bleeding?” and “Why are these people turning up?”. These questions are answered in the third act, an adrenaline fuelled, impressive feat of direction and storytelling, where the critiques of present-day society come thick and fast, and like Alice the viewer is thrown down a rabbit hole, forced to witness the horror of humankind’s destructive nature by Aronofsky’s escalating presentation of disturbing scenes and imagery. Yet despite this explosivity, the film never loses its focus as a home invasion story. Aronofsky maintains this, by using his camera to show Lawrence’s perspective throughout. By viewing events through her eyes, we are equally bewildered and violated by events taking place before us.
Lawrence gives a more reserved performance by her standards, though consequently more dramatic, highlighting her impressive range as an actress. Do not go into Mother! expecting Tiffany from Silver Lining’s Playbook. Lawrence brings explosivity to the role but said explosivity is much more mature. ‘Mother’ very much is a character who adopts the private sphere, whilst her husband, played by Bardem adopts the public. Despite this clear bourgeois assignment of gender roles, she is superseded and appears out of place in her own home once Harris’ ‘Man’ and Pfeiffer’s brilliantly cold ‘Woman’ show up. Thus, emphasising the uncanny feel that the film holds throughout.
In typical Aronofsky style, Bardem’s ‘Him’ is a man of creation. A poet who is presented as a God-like figure throughout the story. His words leading adoring fans to pilgrimage to his home. It is ‘Him’ who is the seed for the unfolding horror and where the subtext of Christianity is most potent. This is not new territory for the director, Anthony Hopkins in Noah and Hugh Jackman in The Fountain both play men of creation, but it’s with Bardem in Mother! where Aronofsky finds the most success. It is a pitch perfect performance. Bardem’s ability to evoke kindness whilst coexisting with bursts of emotion amidst the unfolding of chaotic events add to the film’s uncanniness. I can’t recall there being any competition for Morgan Freeman when it comes to the best portrayal of God, but I would like to throw Bardem’s hat in that ring.
Prior to the release of Mother! Aronofsky released Noah, his bible epic about the conflict between humankind’s superiority complex and corruption. It is a film hard to view without seeing as a direct commentary on climate change. Yet, revisiting the same motif on an estimated budget of $30,000,000 compared to Noah’s $125,000,000, Mother! feels less shallow and consequently more effective. Rather than Noah then, this is Aronofsky’s most successful attempt so far at a theological creation story. Though, if Aronofsky ever decided to blatantly apply theology to the world of high arts, I wouldn’t put it past him to one-up himself.
Whilst Black Swan was concerned with the creation of perfection and the embracing of the corrupt side of human nature and Noah about the creation of a new Eden, Mother! is about the weakness of human nature, its incessant need and desire for recognition and its selfishness and inability to create a new Eden. It’s a film that keeps your brain ticking well after the 121-minute runtime. Whether it leaves you baffled or enthralled, you cannot deny the intrigue you feel once the credits roll.