Tay Greenleaf graduated from UNCA with a degree in creative writing and poetry. She spends way too much money on coffee.
*Note: I have tried my best to leave major plot points out of this review, but read at your discretion if you want to avoid spoilers.
If Darren Aronofsky had named mother! honestly, the title would have probably been an exclamation mark and nothing more. The movie is shocking—disgusting even at points. It leaves the audience feeling emotionally spent but also, like the use of the punctuation mark, can be so overtly hyperbolic that it falls flat. I would like to say I am going to give a review where I pick a side other than using a vague punctuation mark metaphor as my answer, but I’m sorry to disappoint. “!” is exactly what I felt about this movie—in whatever form that comes.
The film has a pretty basic plot on the surface: a woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her poet husband, Javier Bardem, live in a secluded house that was rebuilt after being burned down. The woman takes the helm as the “mother” to the house by spending almost all of her time rebuilding it back to its original state. One day a stranger shows up, disturbing their peaceful existence, and a chaotic sequence of events ensues.
Now, I went into this movie like entering a vacuum. I knew there had to be an allegory somewhere, but I wanted to make those interpretations as I saw fit. It took five minutes to pick up on what Aronofsky was trying to convey, and while that shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, I think right out of the gate the movie reared its most fatal flaw—that there is no subtlety in mother!.
Aronofsky’s allegory is a story as old as the morality plays of the middle ages or the stories of the Greek gods. It’s a story of humanity and our ability to destroy the very things we love. It’s about egoism and greed, and letting what we love most consume us to the point of pain. mother!, if we push the interpretation to its endpoint, is also about the destruction of the earth—notably, with the use of fire.
And all of this is fine. It’s literary Plot Writing 101: biblical and historical references weaved together to create an allegory about how shitty humanity can actually be. In theory it should work—authors and directors have been doing this for centuries, but mother!’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t trust its audience. Instead of letting subtlety and good storytelling work in a viewer’s imagination, Aronofsky seems to be hammering the symbolism into you as though you couldn’t possibly come to a conclusion without him waving it in your face. This hand-holding even strains to the point of characters straight out telling you what they are symbolically referencing by the end of the film—as though you couldn’t figure it out by the heavy handed hints coming your way since the opening scene.
With this all being said, there are some redeeming and interesting choices made. And despite my critique, there is some richness to the symbolism. Although their characters, like the rest of the narrative, are steeped in a very familiar biblical tale, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris pull through with great performances, and some artistic direction surrounding the subject of the husband’s writing career seemed very well plotted. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was also very convincing as the meek virgin/mother/Gaia figure, even to the point where as a viewer you wanted to take over for her just to give her some peace.
But even that strong empathy that develops towards Lawrence’s character leads to a critique of Aronofsky’s direction. Like it or not, it seems Aronofsky has continued to pass his notorious shock storytelling from Requiem for a Dream all the way to his latest film. The climax of mother! was admittedly hard to watch, even to the point where I found myself cradling my head in my hands for a good bit of the last act, and in that sense Aronofsky made the impression he wanted. And I will give credit where credit is due: A director wants his audience to feel something, after all, and I certainly felt a lot of things as I got more invested in this movie. But by the time the credits rolled, I felt emotionally spent, but with no real moral to take away with me. While the ending of the film is can be interpreted as hopeful, it felt to me as though I had gone through turmoil to not learn anything, or at least learn anything new.
What it comes down to is that Aronofsky created mother! the same way our brains develop nightmares. Familiar concepts are weaved together in a different light, leaving you disoriented and sometimes shocked, but the moment you start detaching those pieces from its whole, you realize it really is nothing new at all, but a retelling of everything you’ve heard before—and just like our nightmares, we realize there is nothing truly remarkable to fear and we walk away unaffected and without learning something new. Millions of stories have taken up this concept before and they worked—and while I don’t think mother! is a disaster by any means, I don’t think it took the necessary steps to making this story fresh enough to tell again.
This isn’t to say I think this movie doesn’t deserve a watch—it is a divisive film and, if anything, has had people (including me) take time out of their day to talk about it. Would I personally watch it again? Probably not. But I think this film is a good gateway for many general audiences who have not delved into many thought-provoking films or works of art. I will encourage people to take the time to watch mother!, but by doing so, I hope you also take the time to watch a Jorodoswky film, or read a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—where just like magic mirrors, stories' not wholly unlike mother!’s reverberate with more intention. Hell, you might actually learn something from them, too.
Watch the trailer for mother! here:
mother! is now playing at Grail Moviehouse and other theaters around town.