Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!: An outrageous and audacious shock -horror of biblical dimension.
US, 2017/ 121 mins/ Cert. 18
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris
Like Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier, Darren Aronofsky is a cinema provocateur whose work is deliberately confrontational and seemingly intent on dividing both critical opinion and the cinema-going public alike. Aronofsky’s second feature, Requiem for a Dream (2000), caused a rumpus with the film classification board in the US with its frank sex and drug content and his last film, Noah (2014), was banned in some Muslim countries for transgressing the teachings of Islam and condemned by some Christians for what they saw as Aronofsky’s manipulation of the biblical story to promote his own environmentalist agenda. Not content with the film grossing over $362 million worldwide, an unrepentant Aronofsky appeared to want to stir things up even more, with the self-professed atheist director claiming that he intended to make a secular film and that Noah was ‘the least biblical biblical film ever made’. With Mother! it appears that the enfant-terrible has some unfinished business with the Bible narrative as the film revisits some of the themes in Noah, subsequently provoking another backlash from some Christians and critics.
After its brief opening close-up of a hideously charred woman’s face and before it goes hyper-apocalyptic, Mother! begins conventionally enough. A married couple, referred to simply in the credits as ‘Mother’ (Jennifer Lawrence) and ‘Him’ (Javier Bardem), live in a ramshackle wooden mansion in the heart of an idyllic rural setting. He is a successful poet suffering from writer’s block and she is an attentive wife, content in looking after her husband whilst renovating the house. Apparent tensions within the relationship seem to emerge and these are exacerbated by the arrival of Ed Harris’ ‘Man’, who is asked to stay at the house by ‘Him’ to the obvious chagrin of his wife who resents the stranger’s intrusion into this serene Eden. When Harris’ wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, turns up later, the couple disrupt the peace of the house and the stability of the marriage. It is revealed that Harris’ character is dying and he visited the home because he wanted to meet the great poet. His wife is a loquacious busy-body and as the pair threaten to take over the household, Pfeiffer insensitively probes the minutia of their marriage, asking deeply personal questions and suggesting ways in which ‘Mother’ might spice up the couple’s sex life. When Pfeiffer askes Lawrence why she is doing the house up by herself, Lawrence replies that she ‘wants to build a paradise’ for them to share, the first oblique reference to the story of the Fall and the biblical references in the film develop as the story progresses.
Even before we are hurled violently into the deranged final act of the film, Mother! confounds the audience’s expectations. What starts out as a combination of marital drama and psychological study- Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf as filtered through the febrile imagination of von Trier- becomes infused with the dread of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. As she decorates the home, Lawrence becomes aware of a strange foetal-like organism with a pulsing heart that seems to dwell within its walls, echoing Repulsion or even David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Throw in a Pinteresque character power struggle with the arrival of Harris and Pfeiffer and add the ingredients of a home invasion horror film before the generic terrain seismically shifts beneath your feet once more with the arrival of the warring sons of Harris and Pfeiffer (Domnhall and Brian Gleeson)
The brothers, in an obvious reference to the story of Cain and Abel, are in conflict over the terms of their father’s will and their disagreement erupts into violence as Mother! lurches from the psychological aspects of its opening and is transformed into a freakishly visceral, violent and increasingly excessive horror film. Eventually more strangers arrive at the house, trashing the place and disrespecting their hosts as Lawrence’s state of mind becomes progressively more disturbed. During a brief respite from the chaos imposed upon the house by Harris, Pfeiffer and their friends, Lawrence jokes to her husband that she is going to ‘clean up the apocalypse’ as the script gives us a heads-up to the mayhem that is to come.
The apocalypse duly arrives once ‘Him’ has successfully overcome his writers block and created a poetic masterpiece. Gangs of press and fans arrive to interview and meet the writer with these admirers become increasingly sycophantic and deranged. When the poet’s magnum-opus becomes a quasi-theological text, the source of a New Age religious cult, Bardem is elevated to the role of prophet, welcoming hordes of acolytes into the house and allowing them to share his possessions. These scenes in the film strangely reminded me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and at one point I had to resist the urge to shut out that Javier Bardem’s ‘not the messiah he’s just a very naughty boy’. Despite its outlandish horror, there is a darkly comic subtext operating beneath the chaotic narrative surface of the film, as if Aronofsky is inviting you to laugh at the sheer audacity of it all.
The final act of the film unfolds with a dream- like illogicality. As events spiral surreally out of control, the house becomes a metaphor for the destructive impulse of humanity with scenes of crime, murder, riot and war all played out within its walls. At the centre of this maelstrom, Lawrence comes to symbolise Mother Earth, a voice of reason and sanity amidst the chaos as the political, ecological and religious allegory comes to the fore. Although the apocalyptic final third of the film is a breath-taking experience, it does spill over into silliness at times. You may have to suspend your disbelief on occasions.
Whenever its berserk narrative threatens to overwhelm, it is Lawrence’s extraordinary, physical and emotionally demanding performance that holds the piece together. The entire film hinges on her transformation from doting wife at the beginning to full-on scream-queen during the final third. As it has been revealed that Aronofsky and Lawrence began a relationship whilst shooting the picture, the fact that Lawrence is the constant source of the film’s focus, repeatedly captured in lingering close-ups and tracked adoringly by the camera in relatively long-takes, makes Mother! seem like a cinematic love letter from the director to his partner. Considering the torture Aronofsky puts her through during the movie, it may not be entirely unreasonable to wonder whether there is a sadomasochistic element to the relationship. Indeed, Lawrence has admitted that making the film was the toughest moment of her career so far.
Mother! could be read in a variety of ways: part allegory, part psychological thriller, part exploitational torture horror. It could also be a comment on the director’s creative process itself, a discourse on the god-like imaginative impulse of the auteur. It is not a flawless film but considering its scope and its grandiose ambition it is a fine achievement and hardly deserving of the opprobrium it has met from some quarters. The film’s flaws are the result of its sheer scale of ambition rather than any inherent problems in the film itself. Cinema, threatened with being rebooted to death and oversaturated with superhero franchises, needs directors like Aronofsky and Paramount should be credited for making Mother! and defending it amidst the flak.
Aronofsky’s bellicose scream of rage at the state of the world and the destruction of the environment is a full-on ravishment of the senses which comes across like an infernal meeting of an amphetamine-addled Luis Buñuel and Hieronymus Bosch. Go and see it. It is a two-hour, white knuckled, rollercoaster ride and if you forgive it its faults you should enjoy the pure shot of adrenaline it provides.