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OH, MOTHER! Baffling Aronofsky film raises questions, offers few answers

Universal Pictures
Jennifer Lawrence stars in "Mother!"
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Mother! might be the most garish, outlandish, and blatantly grotesque film released by a major studio since Universal Pictures unleashed Mulholland Drive into the world in 2001. 

But whether you love it or hate it (because there’s no way you’re going to feel indifferent), you have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking a chance on a film as audacious as Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (whose official title is stylized as mother!). It’s a miracle in itself that a film like this is even allowed to exist, a claustrophobic $30 million gothic horror art-house thriller where everything goes to hell and there’s no hope for anyone.

With a film studio system that works in extremes, delivering either pricey blockbusters or micro-budgeted indies, Mother! represents the sort of middle-range feature that’s becoming all too rare in modern filmmaking. But depending on how you feel about Aronofsky’s latest, you might think that’s for the better.

Part of the thrill of Mother! is not knowing what to expect once it starts to unfold. The marketing for the film has smartly strayed away from revealing too many details by instead focusing on plot fragments and striking images, whether it’s a lightbulb that gushes blood or the battered face of America’s Sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence screaming out in agony. Which is really all you need to know since a film like Mother! relies far more heavily on allegories and metaphors than plot, which could also be said of previous Aronofsky fare like Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan.

But here’s what I can tell you. The film stars Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple who live a peaceful existence in their rundown mansion in the middle of nowhere. Lawrence’s character, the titular Mother never referred to by name, is restoring the mansion from a fire that damaged it years ago while Bardem (Him), an acclaimed poet, tries to work himself out of a severe case of writer’s block.

But their secluded tranquility is disrupted with the arrival of a man and his wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), whose intrusion causes tensions to escalate within the marriage and sets off a chain of events too demented to describe here.

But even if the film isn’t your cup of tea thematically, there’s still plenty for the casual viewer to appreciate. Lawrence is the definition of an A-lister with swarms of devoted fans, a true movie star whom I’m assuming was the sole reason Paramount was willing to finance a film as bat-shit as Mother! 

But between the critical and commercial disappointment of her last few films, including Joy and Passengers, both her talent and credibility have been put into question. But the thing about her performance here is that it’s so otherworldly good, it reminds you just how powerful of an actress she can be when she isn’t covered in blue body-paint.

Lawrence is in every scene and nearly every frame, with Aronofsky even noting that 66 minutes of Mother!’s 121-minute runtime is a close-up of her. And Lawrence gets put through the ringer emotionally, physically, and mentally, shedding every ounce of star power she has to portray a woman on the verge of a breakdown watching the world quite literally deteriorate around her.

You could replace Lawrence in all of her past movies with any number of actresses and still have the same effect, but it’s hard to imagine another actress bringing the mixture of quiet vulnerability and violent rage that Lawrence exudes in Mother! The performance as well as the film itself might be too messy to warrant Academy consideration, but she easily delivers one of the most stunningly effective performances of the year, and easily the best of her career to date.

But it says a lot about the talent on display that the rest of the cast manages to shine just as brightly. Bardem is reliably fantastic as Lawrence’s significantly older lover who can’t bring himself to give her what she needs to be happy, and Harris is charmingly slimy as the mysterious man who appears at the couple’s doorstop.

But Pfeiffer is the film’s darkly comic heart, a sexed-up housewife who drinks too much and refuses to do what she’s told. We should be truly grateful that Pfeiffer’s making her way back into movies after going into semi-retirement, because next to Lawrence she’s the best thing the film has to offer. Even if it’s a relatively trim role, Pfeiffer makes the most out of every close-up and perfectly-placed quip, making a very strong case for a Best Supporting Actress nomination (and long-deserved win).

There’s a lot to unpack in Mother!, and nearly 48 hours after seeing it I’m still trying to figure out whether it was a truly singular creative feat or a hokey religious allegory posing as art. The first two-thirds operate as a slow-burning family drama before careening into a climax that feels like Rosemary’s Baby meets The Tree of Life, only with less Mia Farrow and more flesh-eating.

Does Jennifer Lawrence’s character represent Mother Nature? Is Javier Bardem supposed to be God or a symbol of organized religion in general? Is his poetry a metaphor for the Bible? The house a stand-in for Heaven (or Hell)? And what’s Kristen Wiig doing here, where’d she come from?

You’ll leave the theater with a lot of questions and even more criticisms. You’ll only get angry if you try to accept the film at face-value instead of letting the heavy religious allegory and obvious social commentary wash over you as it goes. And if it all seems a bit on-the-nose, did you really expect anything else from a guy who made a movie where a woman literally transforms into a swan?

You might love Mother! to the point that you see it multiple times in the theater just to admire the way Aronofsky takes religious iconography and blends it with a cautionary tale about the damage we inflict on our world. You might hate it so much that you send a strongly-worded letter to Paramount asking them what happened to the studio that once produced films like Titanic or Forrest Gump.

But which camp you fall into doesn’t matter because a strong reaction is all Aronofsky wants out of you, which is something I can guarantee you’ll have.  

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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