Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in
Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make movies for your enjoyment.
From the earliest days of his career, his films have been a relentless barrage of grotesque and transgressive imagery, built around themes of paranoia and self-destruction, and tied together into a debasing experience that feels less like a catharsis than an assault.
Consequently, it seems odd that viewers would expect his latest work – “mother!” – to be the kind of tried-and-true psychological thriller its advertising would suggest; it seems even more odd that their reaction to it would be one of surprise and even outrage.
Yet that is precisely what happened.
During the movie’s opening weekend, critics and audiences alike labeled it as a “flop” within moments of walking out of the theater, and took to social media with ranting diatribes calling it one of “the worst movies ever made” – but does it really deserve such labels? The answer to that question may be as perplexing as the film itself.
“mother!” is ostensibly the tale of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her author husband (Javier Bardem), in an isolated house in the country. She works hard restoring their home, previously burned in a fire, while he struggles with writer’s block, but their life together seems tranquil and full of hope – until a strange couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, threatening the stability of the idyllic world they have built for themselves.
The premise echoes countless other thrillers in which happy couples are terrorized by interlopers, and forced to face uncomfortable truths about themselves as they battle to restore order to their lives. Though Aronofsky quickly derails the formula with his customary descent into nightmare logic, he nevertheless takes on all the tropes of the genre – buried secrets, subversions of intimacy, implications of “gaslighting,” even good old-fashioned jump scares. He doesn’t necessarily take them seriously; indeed, he milks them for considerable humor, using them to mock both themselves and the audience’s willingness to buy into them, even as he twists them into the service of his larger agenda.
He utilizes a similar combination of homage and satire in the repurposing of some of his own now-familiar tools, most notably the “unreliable narrator” technique. Almost the entirety of “mother!” is focused in close-up proximity to Lawrence’s character; most of the action comes to our attention through a sort of peripheral vision which not only serves as a reminder that we are seeing it through her eyes, but creates a dreamlike flow which warns us that not everything in this film should be taken at face value.
It’s a warning well worth heeding.
Behind its thin disguise, “mother!” carries an ambitious vision. From the bones of its generic horror plot, Aronofsky has built no less than a cosmic allegory about the eternal dance between creation and destruction. Rife with Freudian underpinnings and Biblical overtones, flavored by the director’s darkly surreal visual style, and exploring a daunting array of themes, it’s a construct so dense with metaphor that its layers reflect endlessly upon each other like an infinite funhouse mirror.
It might be said that so much significance to unpack reduces the film to the level of a pretentious intellectual exercise, or that the Harvard-educated Aronofsky’s own privileged background is inseparable from the observations he makes.
Nevertheless, any honest artist must draw on personal experience in creating their work, and while these qualifications may be necessary for a discussion of the movie’s relevance within the larger culture, they are ultimately irrelevant to assessing the skill with which Aronofsky has executed his film or the impact it has upon the viewer.
Both are considerable. The filmmaker has crafted a screenplay which deftly weaves complex ideas into a simple narrative as it constructs a post-modern Creation Myth – with a decidedly feminist flavor – out of a “B” movie structure; he has translated it onscreen with a blend of arch self-awareness and unabashed authenticity. His film boasts a collection of superb performances (particularly Pfeiffer’s) and a masterful use of cinematography and sound in its depiction of a pastoral world slowly devolving into a landscape of dark esoterica.
Why, then, do so many people hate it? Despite its calculated intellectualism, “mother!” is a deeply visceral experience that hits us in our most uncomfortable, instinctual places – but perhaps more than that, it leaves us with a sense of betrayal.
From its very beginning moments, Aronofsky makes us think we know exactly where he’s taking us; he telegraphs all his tricks with such a heavy hand that it puts us off almost as much as the escalating gore and violence; and yet, in the end, he still manages to pull the rug out from under us. He takes our expectations and turns them against us, and it feels like a dirty trick.
It’s no wonder that many viewers have felt like they have been subjected to the same kind of psychological abuse suffered by Lawrence through most of the film – but that doesn’t mean it deserves to be written off with the vehemence and vitriol it has inspired in so many of its detractors.
Aronofsky never meant to make a simple horror movie that would disquiet you for the duration and then send you home feeling safe, secure, and satisfied. To consider “mother!” a failure is to miss the director’s intention entirely. His movie may not be for everyone, but it is also cinematic expression at a level of fearlessness almost unheard of in American filmmaking. It’s a work by an artist at the peak of his talents, who seeks to challenge and provoke us – whether we like it or not.
With that in mind, his movie is perhaps too successful for its own good.