MOTHER! * * 1 / 2
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kristen Wiig. Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Almost twenty years into his career, debate continues to rage in film circles as to whether aging enfant terrible Darren Aronofsky is a genius or a moron. Like most discussions that boil art down to binaries, this one’s dull and unproductive — especially since anyone who has ever sat through an Aronofsky movie knows both things can be true at the same time.
I think it was at the end of The Fountain, when Hugh Jackman lovingly performed cunnilingus on a tree that grew from his dead wife’s burial plot, that I just sat back and started laughing appreciatively at a filmmaker so recklessly, wantonly in love with every grandiose idea that comes into his head — no matter how sophomoric or inane. Aronofsky’s nutty allegories never do hold up to much in the way of intellectual scrutiny, but his go-for-broke technical virtuosity and sicko sense of humor can sometimes carry the day. (I’m convinced a big reason Black Swan remains so high in my estimation is that I only watched it once.)
Aronofsky’s instant film maudit Mother! is brilliantly crafted, perversely hilarious and also something of a chore. It’s the kind of movie that demands to be seen, mostly so you can get into arguments about it afterwards. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as a bright young thing married to a pretentious poet played by Javier Bardem. They live in a house that’s literally in the middle of nowhere – there aren’t even any roads nearby– and yet somehow an emphysematic surgeon played by Ed Harris stumbles upon the place thinking it’s a bed-and-breakfast.
He’s soon joined by his nagging, insinuating wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the first half of the film is a slyly funny, Polanski-esque comedy of unease about the most intrusive houseguests ever. I read somewhere that 65% of the movie is close-ups on Lawrence, and the rest of the time the camera feels tethered within arm’s length of her body, keeping us constrained to her point of view in an oppressive visual scheme that’s both extremely empathetic and kind of annoying. Before long Harris and Pfeiffer’s sons show up (played by Gleeson brothers Domhnall and Brian) and faster than you can say Cain and Abel we’re off to the Biblical symbolism sweepstakes.
A lot of the discussion surrounding Mother! concerns the logjam of metaphors clogging the movie’s chaotic second hour. One can make a case that it’s an environmental parable, with the house presented as a living, breathing organism that slowly dies while stampeded by the procession of thoughtless guests trashing the place. Or it could be about what a drag it is being married to a narcissistic creative type, as the poet lavishes attention on his swarms of fans while callously ignoring his wife. And then there’s the straight-up “Artist as God” reading, complete with Bardem giving us his only begotten son in a gross-out literalization of the Eucharist that I still kinda can’t believe I saw in a major studio picture.
Of course I adored the cameo by Kristen Wiig as a pretend-nice publicist we soon see ordering executions. Indeed, the whole midsection in which Lawrence’s living room turns into Children Of Men is a cluttered marvel of Stygian staging and nightmare logic, which makes it even more of a bummer when the final act settles back down with Lawrence and Bardem. (You really miss Harris and Pfieffer in the second half.) The archetypes played by our leads are too hollow –they don’t even have names– to bring any dramatic heft to the story’s conclusion, which is itself weirdly predictable for a film this insane.
But even if I don’t think the movie hangs together, I’m still awfully glad I saw it – especially at a multiplex full of confounded and horrified JLaw fans. Most films are so safe and bland these days, it’s damned refreshing to watch something this frantically unhinged. I might not like Mother! very much but I feel enormous gratitude that it exists.