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With: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Stephen McHattie
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
MPAA Rating: R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 121
Date: 09/15/2017

mother! (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Darren Aronofsky's mother! — which includes the lowercase "m" and the exclamation point — is an unquestionably brilliant movie, even if its initial effect is less than brilliant. It's a movie that demands consideration and examination, all the more so because it seems to be one thing for about 90 to 95% of its running time, and then suddenly becomes something else. The effect is shocking, disorienting, and as moviegoers programmed to see things a certain way, it's easy to resist, to mock or dismiss.

It's a movie that asks big questions, of a spiritual/cosmic nature, and it's ambitious in ways that art house films in the 1960s, films like Last Year at Marienbad or L'Eclisse were ambitious. Not everything is explained, but the material is there for plenty of deep thought. Yet I hesitate to call mother! a masterpiece, and I'm not yet sure my hesitation is founded in anything logical. It could be that I'm wrong, and it is a masterpiece, something that could elevate the art form of cinema once again.

Or it could be that, despite its ambitions, it has roots in three earlier Aronofsky films: The Fountain (2006), Black Swan (2010), and Noah (2014). This is, of course, understandable, and for those of us who admire directors, preferable. But, to explain: Black Swan is the most similar to mother! or, specifically, similar for the longest period of running time. I do love Black Swan. I think it's a great film, and it's easy to unpack on a single viewing. The women in both films are young and beautiful, and trapped and tormented, perhaps by their own minds, or perhaps by more mysterious forces.

Both films recall Roman Polanski's Repulsion with their razor focus on one woman's emotional crisis. But then there is a twist, and without giving too much away, I can say that it has something to do with religion and/or spirituality. Thus, we can bring back Aronofsky's most recent effort, the mismatched Biblical epic Noah, a weird, unsatisfying collection of computer effects and strange ideas grafted onto the old legend. I don't know if Aronofsky believes in a divine presence in the universe, but both films reference it.

Then I must go back to The Fountain, which had a similar, cosmic storytelling style and took enormous leaps of faith. As for myself, it left me feeling that I might have seen something tremendous, but that I'd need some time to think it over and perhaps see the movie again. I have never had the urge to do that, and I have come up with no new ideas about its mysteries. In short, mother! makes us think of these three other movies, all of them with negative connotations.

Which is not to say that the film is bad. On the contrary, it's deeply affecting and expertly made. It uses its simple following-the-character method to extract strong feelings of paranoia, panic, and fear, as well as more primal feelings of nightmares, illogical and untethered to anything that makes any emotional sense. It's the id run rampant, running for its life.

What is this film, exactly? In it, an unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a lovely country house with her husband, a poet (Javier Bardem). She spends her days restoring the house, cooking, cleaning, and whatnot, while he tries, and fails to write. Suddenly a man (Ed Harris) appears at the door. He seems to be a fan of the poet's. The poet is glad for the company and invites him to stay. The man seems to be ill and frequently coughs.

Later, the man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up. She's sort of loose and vaguely rude. She makes a strong lemonade drink and offers the woman one, but leaves the kitchen a mess. The guests have sex in their room with the door open. Things center around a fragile artifact, a hunk of what appears to be glass with colorful designs inside, and when the visitors break it, the woman screams at them to leave. Later, the couple's two grown sons (Domhnall Gleeson and his brother Brian) arrive and begin a knock-down, drag-out fight over some perceived slight, having to do with the man's will. The woman is left with a blood stain on the floor that she can't quite clean up.

After a sudden wake (don't ask) and some fighting, the poet makes love to the woman, and she becomes pregnant. He is inspired to write again. He finishes a poem, and people begin showing up, an agent (Kristen Wiig), and many fans/followers who eventually begin breaking into the house, urinating in the sink, and ripping souvenirs from the walls. The destruction grows more and more rampant, with people dying, and fires started.

From there, I can't spoil what happens, but I will say that you won't be prepared for it. I can mention the film's opening minutes, which shows the burned, destroyed house restoring itself (going back in time?) and the woman waking up in bed, turning, finding the poet gone, and calling out, "Baby?" At first glance, this is a nickname for her love partner, but it has many other connotations as well.

I'm most affected by the nightmarish qualities of the movie. Unquestionably, there's no reason not to believe that the first 90% of the movie doesn't take place in reality, but the way the woman sees the world is powerfully disturbing. The camera is with her the entire time, and all the other characters regard her (and us, the viewers), from a middle distance. The things that happen are sometimes overt, such as when she tries to get people not to sit on a sink that has not been reinforced, and they begin to bounce on it. And sometimes they are subtle, such as when people tell her that something is OK, when clearly it's not.

There's something selfish in the woman's demeanor. She doesn't want anyone around, and she experiences everything the visitors do as rude, whereas the poet sees them as guests, bestows kindness and forgiveness on them. Yet it's hard not to identify with her. The supreme sense of discomfort she feels whenever an intruder comes into her sanctum is passed on to us. This is not a movie about learning how to forgive; we can't forgive. That's perhaps the darkest thing of all, and it may be a key to the movie's conclusion.

Which brings me to my conundrum. I can't really discuss what I think the movie ultimately means without describing in detail its mind-altering conclusion. And I'm not in the business of giving away endings here. I do think it has a deeper meaning, a solution to the puzzle. I'm not sure whether it's deeply profound, or just something momentarily distracting and entertaining. But, more immediately, I think my hesitation in proclaiming this a masterpiece has to do with Aronofsky's decision to surprise us with his themes.

That shock lasts only a few minutes, and won't recur on subsequent viewings. And it leaves viewers unsettled and dazed after the movie is over, whereas the experience of actually watching the movie is something different. I'm not saying that either one of these things is good or bad, but it's the difference between the experience of a movie and the memory of a movie. Is this a movie that offers an experience, or a puzzle to be messed around with after the fact? Either way, and whether or not it can be declared a masterpiece today, Aronofsky's mother! is an essential movie of the moment, and — unlike most other movies — one worthy of serious discussion.

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