Mother! (2017)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

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In Mother! an idyllic countryside home is descended upon by unwelcome outsiders.  Inside the home live a man and a woman (Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence), a happy young (when you average their ages) couple.  He is a poet struggling with writer’s block, and she is the one putting the once decrepit house back together.  She interacts with the home like a living, breathing organism, listening to its heartbeat like someone bonding with a horse, and she will be the one trying to fend off the invaders that push their way inside over the course of the film.

Bardem is the charismatic but slightly imbalanced one who eagerly welcomes all of these people inside. He reasons that the house is far too big for just them, so why not be generous?  Later, when push comes to shove, he’ll admit that this is all a way of avoiding his own work.

This dynamic, a distance between man and wife and the antagonism felt by the wife against the outside world, is very similar to Rosemary’s Baby.  It’s in these early moments that the movie works best, never quite crossing over into horror territory but more than unsettling you as a viewer.  For me, at least, the idea of people invading my own space is quite disturbing, particularly as they do it so brazenly, behaving as if this home belongs to them.

It’s an unsettling dynamic that the movie never really explores if only because it makes far too literal all the early biblical references.  The first two visitors, another man and wife (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) are Adam & Eve, and when they break an artifact held dear to the Javier Bardem character, it’s not hard to read into as the original sin, eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

At this point I may have been patting myself on the back for recognizing these allegories, but quickly it becomes far too obvious what Aronofosky is going for as the mystery couple’s two sons show up and one kills the other (Cain & Abel).

Having biblical subtext is fine, but when the story leans on it to such a degree that the subsequent action becomes predictable and stripped of anything other than supposed symbolism, it just falls flat.  Well before the halfway point I struggled to see the Bardem and Lawrence characters as anything other than poor reconstructions of God and Jesus’ mother Mary.  This only gets worse as chaos descends on the home, leading to a broken leak (the great flood), followed by God impregnating Mary and then finding the inspiration to finally write his magnum opus, aka the Bible, right?

It’s just such a slog to get through.

I think the movie would be much better off sticking to some semblance of reality, at least to start the movie.  The story goes off the rails so quickly that we never have any time to grasp reality or to understand the stakes (if any) to the film.  We’re meant to identify with  Lawrence’s character, and for a time I did, but as it becomes increasingly obvious that she herself is a metaphor, then it becomes harder to invest in her storyline.

The movie is inspired and extremely chaotic, but such chaos didn’t contribute to much.  It’s like building a fifty-story skyscraper on top of a marshy foundation.  As the story became more unrestrained it felt like there was more and more missing at the start.

The movie is similar, at the start at least, to another 2017 movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread.  They both have a similar visual aesthetic, and they both deal with the struggle between an artist and his muse.  In that struggle the artist, in both cases probable versions of the movie’s directors themselves, exposes an uglier, more petulant side, and it’s the muse through whom we see much of the story and with whom we are more likely to identify.

In terms of Mother! this storyline offers some promise, but as the story gets crazier and crazier, the characters become less and less important.  The biblical imagery quickly outweighs any of the other subtext, and it starts to feel like Aronofksy is comparing his plight to God’s.  Even if that wasn’t his intention, the supposed grandiosity is frustrating.

Mother! tries to do too much, and because of that it jumps right over what should be compelling about a movie like this.  When the first couple show up it presents a bit of the theatre of the absurd.  It’s a strange scenario, but the Lawrence character must grapple with it in the same ways we would.  She at least has some agency in these early moments, but as the story grows in scope, she becomes nothing more than a helpless observer.

And yes, I get that this is the point, that she has no control over her own domain, that humans are destroying the earth, etc. but I think there’s a better way to tell this story, mostly by ignoring the more faceless, nameless mob of characters.

There’s a point at which about 10-12 people have entered the house, and by that point it already feels chaotic but at least a bit more manageable.  It’s enough to hammer home the point that Lawrence’s character has no control, but up until this point she remains her own character, an active participant in the struggle.  After that all hell breaks loose, and not in a great way.

Up Next: Midnight Run (1988), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Zama (2017)

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