Speaking at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal last year, Guillermo del Toro was asked by an audience member how he chooses which story ideas to pursue. His answer, paraphrased, is that he always chases the stories that hurt most to tell; that reveal something uncomfortable about himself, no matter how buried under story artifice. Those, he said, are the stories that mean the most and hit the hardest.
Darren Aronofsky must have been wracked with agony making Mother!.
Aronofsky’s new feature shatters the expectations set up by its marketing campaign, going to stranger and darker places than its already strange and dark trailers suggest. Wildly ambitious, unsettlingly intimate, and brazenly confrontational, Mother! tops even Dunkirk as 2017’s greatest generator of cinematic anxiety. Starting small, it confidently and relentlessly builds towards a horrible, inevitable, beautiful climax, leaving its audience in dumbfounded silence, squinting into its final fade to white. For some, it's a "holy shit" movie; for others, a "what the hell was that" one.
Much of Mother! plays out as an absurdist chamber piece: a single-location thriller constructed out of tightly-observed social interactions. Jennifer Lawrence plays “Mother,” wife to Javier Bardem’s “Him,” living in the sprawling, isolated childhood home she rebuillt and renovated for him after it burned down. When a stranger (a delightful Ed Harris, credited as “Man”) appears at the door, shortly followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, as “Woman,” equally delightful), Bardem’s character offers them room and board; as unwanted visitors pile up and abuse their hospitality in increasingly callous ways, Lawrence begins to question her relationship to Bardem and her own sanity. Why is he letting these randos into their home? Why won’t he listen to her? And what significance has the jewel that he keeps in a shrine in his office?
The second half goes to places I daren’t spoil. It escalates to an astonishing scale, while still containing its intensity entirely within the house, carried by utterly fearless, bravura filmmaking. I watched the last half-hour of Mother! with my jaw literally hanging open; like the darkest and best parts of Aronofsky's previous feature Noah, I could scarcely believe what I was watching.
It’s near-impossible to discuss Mother! without addressing this third act, so vague spoilers follow.
Jennifer Lawrence barely leaves the screen in Mother!, her face consistently framed closer than any other character, and there’s a reason for that. The film’s psychological and eventually physical horror stems from misogyny, its screenplay a litany of cruelties visited upon women, its camerawork and editing a study in cinematic point-of-view. In more ways than one, this is a passion play for Lawrence, whose character weathers constant attacks and hardships throughout the film, and who delivers a performance for the ages. No misogynistic leaf is left unturned, and Lawrence is spared few humiliations; what starts with micro-aggressions and condescension builds to outright scorn, anger, and eventually shocking acts of (non-sexual but definitely gendered) violence. It’s a difficult watch, charged with social claustrophobia and often sudden lurches into chaos and brutality. For better or worse, Mother! rubs the audience’s faces in society’s mistreatment and exploitation of women, and more specifically, young women. But that’s not all there is to Mother!.
Aronofsky has one-upped Noah's critical religious study, building an allegorical, sometimes laughably on-the-nose precis of the Bible into Lawrence and Bardem’s stories. Nearly every character can be mapped onto a prominent Biblical figure: God and Mary (Bardem and Lawrence); Adam and Eve (Harris and Pfeiffer); Cain and Abel (Brian and Domnhall Gleeson, as "Younger Brother" and "Oldest Son"). Even the supporting characters and featured extras are credited as “Zealot,” “Loiterer,” “Pilferer,” “Penitent,” “Good Samaritan,” and so on. Bardem’s “poet” character delivers his word unto the people, and they worship him. The film is divided roughly into two halves, with the second revolving around the birth, worship, and sacrifice of a child. The basement is Hell; the upper floor is Heaven; the fiery climax can be seen as a Revelation of sorts, destroying the world so it can be rebuilt again, the cycle beginning anew.
For all its Biblical scale and references, Mother! feels achingly personal. Its events work as a damning critique of celebrity relationships: Bardem's character soaks in fan adulation while literally draining the love from Lawrence's heart, using her up, before finding another young woman upon which to foist his one-sided romance. That cycle's all too familiar, and it makes the relative ages of the leads critical to the film's themes (as many suspected when the trailer and subsequent casting controversy hit, almost as if a two-hour movie had more depth than a 90-second commercial). Suddenly, the debut poster - with Lawrence offering out her heart, torn from her chest, makes horrible sense.
It's noteworthy that Mother! represents Aronofsky working at the pinnacle of his craft (along with every single member of his cast and crew), given that Bardem's character is also an artist - a poet - working at the top of his. For its writer-director, Mother! can be read as a deep well of introspection and self-loathing, with Bardem’s Aronofsky analogue churning ignorantly through young women like inspirational muse-dolls - a reading that takes on added dimension when one remembers Aronofsky is dating Lawrence in real life. Or it could be seen as staggeringly self-aggrandising, with Aronofsky casting himself as God, a creator and artist his interchangeable young women can’t hope to fully understand, adored by fans and equalled by nobody. Either way, Aronofsky's definitely working through his attitudes towards women here, and it’s as painful to watch as it likely was to make.
There's even an anthropological and environmentalist reading of this film, wherein Mother Nature builds a beautiful environment that subsequently gets worn out by stupid humans - overpopulated, trashed, taken for granted, and used as a staging ground for conflict. Nature has but one recourse available to her: wipe out the human infection and start afresh, hoping the next civilisation will treat its home a little better. That there’s a recurring motif of burning and charring lends itself to this interpretation, especially given that the climactic explosion comes from an oil tank.
But the most complete way to read Mother! is to synthesise all these angles into one unifying theory of everything. The film is a passionate, horrified cry at the universe, condensing and conflating the entirety of human history, society, family, religion, art, violence, and evil into two hours of borderline avant-garde cinema, and suggesting that the nexus of all those things is the mistreatment of women. That's a heady and potent statement, if not a particularly original one, putting Mother! on a similar cinematic plane to Antichrist - just less talky and significantly higher in budget.
Perhaps I’m wrong here. Perhaps Mother!’s allusions, Biblical and otherwise, are glaringly obvious red herrings, and this really is just Aronofsky exorcising his gender demons through his work. But even without engaging with its thematic content (and it’s difficult not to), Mother! would still work as an emotionally draining, absurd (in the darkest Pinter/Ionesco mould) thriller. Mother! is abstract and experiential rather than naturalistic, a thundering, aggressive blast of misanthropy that takes place outside reality and makes more cosmic sense than literal.
I can't believe this movie got funded, let alone released on 2300 American screens; if Black Swan tested the Academy’s limits for in-your-face genre filmmaking, Mother! does that on an devastating new level. J-Law’s star power is going to attract millions of moviegoers to the least populist movie of the year, and I'm thrilled. Some will love it; many will hate it; those in between will have some of the best cinema-foyer discussions they've ever had. I know I did.