It’s hard to say what kept me from seeing mother! when it was released 2 years ago. There seemed to be a lot of negative hype surrounding it, though this came mostly from its unprecedented “F” CinemaScore, which is not something I’d ever cared about previously. Perhaps it was also because critics didn’t seem to be in love with it as much as they were in love with discussing its unwieldiness. So it made the film seem like an overtly difficult watch, but also like it might not ultimately be worth consuming its more provocative elements. Well, I can now say I agree with the critical consensus that it’s a hard film to love, but is also so batshit insane that I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it.
The marketing behind mother! always seemed to describe the plot in incredibly vague terms and now I understand why. It’s a film that relies more on feeling than plot, which makes sense, considering Darren Aronofsky wrote the screenplay in 5 days during a period of inner turmoil. But if I can be somewhat concrete, the movie centers on a woman only referred to in the credits as mother (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who is living in a remote mansion with her poet husband (Javier Bardem), who has come down with a case of writer’s block. One night, a mysterious stranger comes to their home (Ed Harris) and wishes to stay with them, which the husband is willing to facilitate, which his wife is very suspicious of.
We soon learn that the stranger is a fan that contacted the husband earlier, and that he is ill and doesn’t have long to live. We also learn that he has a wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who also mysteriously shows up at the house, along with their two sons who show up screaming at each other about their father’s will. One of them is killed in a brawl, which then leads to a wake being held at their house. In lieu of this, a bunch of rude strangers invade the house and invade the wife’s personal space while she starts having manic episodes and grotesque visions. This leads the wife to kick all of the strangers out of the house, before she has sex with her husband and then announces that she’s pregnant the next day.
After this, the movie really goes off the rails, and I’m not sure I can adequately do it justice in words. But basically, the husband has a stroke of inspiration after hearing that his wife is pregnant and starts writing again. This brings a bunch of people to the house, who are looking to celebrate the great man and his work, while the wife continues to have these morbid visions, which may be a product of the pregnancy. As more and more strange people flood the house, we see violence and war and basically all the evils of man manifest themselves within the house before the wife finally gives birth and something truly horrifying happens. I’ll just leave it at that.
Watching the first half of mother!, I was a little bewildered by why this movie had garnered such distaste when it came out. Sure, it was a little vague in terms of what the actual rules were of this heightened reality, but its themes felt rich, even if they were hard to pin down. But by the time you get to that ending, make no mistake, this movie wants you to feel bad after watching it. It makes a visceral point of depicting how cruel and thoughtless humans can be, which you kind of have to respect. Though at the same time, you also feel a little dirty by getting sucked into the movie’s intense misanthropy.
It’s hard not to think of Roman Polanski when watching mother! considering it dives into the same kind of paranoia and female psychosis that that little creep was a master of. We see the whole story unfold through mother’s eyes, while also taking on the same distrust and fear of the outside world that she can’t help but feel. This examination of her psyche also feels fairly in line with Aronofsky’s Black Swan in that the line between reality and fantasy is often blurred. Though by the time mother! is over, you’re left wondering if anything in the movie was supposed to be real, or if it was all just one horrible nightmare.
There have been a lot of interpretations of mother! as a biblical parable, though that didn’t became apparent to me until the credits rolled and I saw that all the characters’ names where lowercased, while Javier Bardem’s character was listed as “Him”. Maybe Aronofsky was still in biblical mode after making Noah, and felt like tackling that same kind of grandiosity, but in the vein of his earlier, more gonzo movies. I’m not sure that whatever themes the movie is getting at were clearly decided on, which makes the movie both incredibly visceral and thought-provoking, but also leaves you with the notion that everything is a little meaningless.
Either way, it’s not surprising that mother! was not a sizeable hit when it came out, despite the presence of an A-List star in Jennifer Lawrence. This is honestly one of the most uncommercial movies I’ve seen released by a major studio that I can recall, and I guess it’s all thanks to Black Swan being a big hit. Still, this feels like the kind of movie Aronofsky should be making. Weird, intense, disturbing movies that really sink their teeth into you are what he made his name on, and I’m not sure that he was ever cut out to make mainstream studio movies. So as imperfect as this movie is, it’s still nice to see that Mr. Aronofsky is back on his bullshit.