“mother!” is a cinematic paradox. After days of reflection, I’ve conceded that it resides equally on two planes of existence. It is clever, complex, and a biting satire, yet also simple minded, heavy handed and unnecessary. Its paradox extends into our critiquing as we were repeatedly asked not to spoil any plot points. While we always avoid intentional spoilers, there aren’t any notable plot points per se, instead, the entire film is a metaphor. If that metaphor is explained and understood, then all plot points cease to have any relevance, since the story is as old as time itself. Confused yet? It’s akin to going to see a movie called “Boat” without any knowledge of the plot, but as soon as someone says “It’s based on the Titanic”, you essentially know the entire arc of the story. So how to review a film when explaining the premise robs it of its greatest asset?
We can start with the technical quality of the film. It looks great! It possesses an air of beauty, while not actually achieving beauty. Like the house itself, there’s an underlying decay that is palpable. Darren Aronofsky masterfully creates a growing sense of tension and dread. We know, at some point, all hell will break loose. But when will that break occur, and what will the consequences be? This tension is not only the product of Aronofsky’s uncomfortably voyeuristic camera work but also the excellent performances by the entire cast. Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer have a demanding presence any moment they are on screen, but as she often does, Jennifer Lawrence steals the show. There is only a single scene in the film Lawrence is not present for, be it in frame, or viewing from her perspective. She carries this film, but does so in such an endearing way, that we can’t help but immediately identify with her and her struggles. Wearing a minimal of makeup, she shines with a rare, almost perfect, natural beauty, but it’s a beauty that begins to fade as the traumatic events of the film wear upon her.
After the rather startling opening scene, Aronofsky employs a number of subtle, yet very effective visual effects. It’s not long before we realize that what we are seeing isn’t “real”, at least in our simple definition of the world But what is going on, and when will we get any answers?
This touches on one of the low points of the movie. The moment of realization. That instant when a visual symbol, line of dialog, or wandering mind causes everything to snap into focus and the light bulb to shine brightly. This moment will no doubt vary for every individual, with many leaving the theatre so disturbed at what they have seen that they’ve overlooked what was meant. The irony is that the intent of this film may be even more disturbing for some. During my screening, I rode a sine wave of emotions as the story played out. At first, I was fascinated, intrigued. Eventually, I became annoyed. The movie was too metaphorical, throwing characters and events around with apparently no logic at all. The “why’s” were beginning to outweigh any cinematic value making viewing tedious. Then, without warning, I understood. All the metaphors began falling into place, and for a short period of time, I began to appreciate the cleverness of all the minute details and parallels. In the days following, and with the help of others, I saw more and more little things that meant so much more in the bigger picture. For example, there is a single ancient rune called the Wendehorn that shows up in both the painted movie posters and a significant object in the film. The meaning of this rune, and its use in the film is a wonderful little detail. But, ultimately, like everything else in the movie, is unnecessary.
Over the years I’ve repeatedly written about my appreciation for “layers” or “depth” in a film. “Gravity” is a perfect example of a film that has both a surface and underlying meaning. The problem with “mother!” is that it doesn’t do anything unique with its underlying meaning. It is quite literally saying “See how upsetting this story is, and how terrible everyone in it is? Only a fool would behave in such a manner.”
If there is one thing this film succeeds at, it’s inciting discussion. Many have already heard about the incredibly disturbing scenes near the end. But will audiences ultimately be more offended by the visual metaphors or the underlying cynical meaning behind the film?
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