Where does one begin to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s most recent effort, Mother!? Much like the process of watching the film, that question sparks countless answers. A hybrid in style of one of his earliest efforts — Requiem for a Dream — and his most celebrated one – Black Swan – Mother!, in short, is a cinematic experience of a film.
Starring Academy Award-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, with Oscar nominees Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer in supporting roles, the film tells the story of a couple whose life is incomparably disturbed by the arrival of another couple into their home. As the arrival of the man and the woman stirs trouble for the couple, strange things start happening in their lives.
Darren Aronofsky has never been one to shy away from big productions (think: The Fountain, Noah, etc.). But no matter the size of the work, there is no denying that his films, above all else, are conceptual; we saw it with his first mainstream hit Requiem For A Dream almost two decades ago, and it’s more prominent than ever in Mother!. But what stands out here stylistically is that Mother! is a genre movie to the core. The film is by no means perfect, but if it’s a Psychological Thriller (an allegorical one at that) Aronofsky intended to make, then there is no denying that his film is one of the absolute best Psychological Thrillers ever made. For the entirety of its two-hour run and long after, Mother! causes its viewer an intense amount of discomfort — a hold the director never seems to let go.
Much of the credit for how successfully Aronofsky is able to produce such an unsettling ambience goes to the relationship between its lead and the sound employed in the film. Lawrence delivers the performance of her career as a troubled wife trying to keep her marriage (and her house) together amid strange occurrences. Starting out as a submissive wife and home-maker, reacting to things with silence and reluctance, she slowly vocalises her discomfort, somehow becoming more and more human as she transitions into motherhood. The sounds engineered into the film’s architecture compliment this transition and produce a compelling symphony of the most unnerving kind.
Bardem stars opposite Lawrence as her husband, a down-on-his luck poet struggling to find the muse to write his next piece. While the film soon proves that his role is much larger than initially perceived, his performance did not see the same rise in significance and quality. It isn’t a bad performance, per se, but it wasn’t a memorable one either. There’s a sinister aspect to his character that doesn’t quite fit the role he was supposed to fulfil. And the contrast between Bardem’s good-natured impression outside the role and the way in which he played his character results in an awkward turn for the actor that could have been much better reconciled. That goes back to the casting choices as well as a rather shaky script (those clichés at the end!).
Perhaps that goes back to the unforgiving dance of disturbance that attends to Mother!. As great as most of the performances are (including those of Harris and Pfeiffer), they never quite seem to surface the ruckus of a production that Aronofsky creates. Even the stellar Lawrence is sometimes often overpowered by the scenes. In any ordinary psycho-thriller, her performance would be an easy bet for awards season nods, but this is no ordinary psycho-thriller.
The latter part of the film reveals that Mother! is much more than it seems at face value. Though the viewer is led to believe that there is something much more sinister at play, the truth sneaks up on the viewer and sheds light on the first part of the film, morphing it into a different cinematic experience. And there is both merit and fault in that execution. While the allegory underneath the film is very well-researched and furtively included in its narrative (though more so in the first half), a lot of the times it becomes much for the viewer. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of subtlety in the delivery and especially in the transition to what the film is really about is too explicit and sometimes messy. The film suddenly becomes much more an exercise in showcasing the director’s talents. It resembles an artist showcasing his sketching skills but never quite producing an actual sketch.
And so we arrive at the film’s main issue. Free from all the loud noises, the confusion, and the disturbing (albeit brilliant) sequences, Mother! is simply an allegory, but it fails to some extent in that regard in that it isn’t able to produce two parallel narratives. Instead, the two stories convolute and the narrative flow (like much of the film) is disturbed. The problem with the film’s allegory isn’t the biblical foundations of the story – those, for the most part, are well-established – but the apparent narrative at play. Think of the most famous allegory of our time: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. On the surface, Hester Prynne is found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death. Undressed, the allegory appears and the story is revealed to be a medium for commentary on the Puritans. In the case of Aronofsky’s film, the story on the surface just stops making sense because the allegory takes over instead of being injected into the existing narrative. As opposed to using the apparent story as the medium for the allegory, the allegory becomes the medium itself, and that is where Mother! ultimately fails.
If there’s anything that stands true of Aronofsky, it’s that his movies are conceptually, thematically, and cinematically thought-provoking. Since his earliest work, the director has proven time and time again that his is an ambitious mind. While Mother! may not be his strongest film, it definitely shows that the director is nowhere near done experimenting with his work, and that great films await viewers. And I imagine it won’t be very long before he makes headlines yet again.