Rarely does a film come along that polarizes audiences immediately and intensely. But Mother! most certainly accomplishes that. The Jennifer Lawrence starring film has been labeled “divisive,” which puts it lightly. You’ll either love it or hate it. But what makes Mother! truly special: either way, you’ll feel the need to talk about it.
At face value, Mother! tells an unconventional home invasion story. The film starts with a slow-burn of mystery. Mother, wonderfully played by Lawrence, awakens in bed alone, calling for her husband. As she searches, we are introduced to their home, a Victorian mansion—massive, beautiful, but in various states of disrepair—which is a character in and of itself. This house, which we learn literally has a heart of its own, serves as the sole setting for the entire film. Shortly after finding her husband (the always terrific Javier Bardem), Mother and Him (we never learn their names) are joined by an unexpected guest played by Ed Harris. Why is he there? What does he want? The mystery unfolds as tensions rise and a rift appears between Mother and her husband.
Soon, another surprise visitor, devilishly portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, appears on their doorstep. And as one character after another after another are introduced into the film and into their home, Mother’s lack of control over the situation becomes more and more apparent. The uncertainty and terror she feels escalates. And escalates. And escalates into one of the most memorable final acts in film history. Over the course of its final half hour, Mother! will mesmerize, if not madden. The spectacle that ensues will either be devoured as brilliance or denied as insanity, but no one will say it is boring.
At its core, Mother! is the story of woman who is a passenger in her own life. Her husband, a famous poet, is dismissive of her desires and feelings. So, too, is everyone she interacts with throughout the film. The things she says and does have no authority, receive no respect, and are ignored. Much of the action and dialogue occur off screen, with Mother elsewhere in the house—in the next room, down the hall, upstairs—the events of the film unfolding without her input. The frequent physical separation we see reinforces how little control she has over anything happening in her life. The way she is talked to, discounted, even despised by other characters is rough to watch. Not since 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things have I felt such visceral discomfort watching the complete powerlessness of a character. To that end, the film’s writer/director, Darren Aronofsky, masterfully keeps the camera close to Lawrence’s Mother throughout. He forces us to experience life in her shoes. Simply put: she is often as powerless over her own story as are those watching the film. And the frequently disorienting close-ups on Mother as she moves throughout the house amplify what is already uncomfortable to watch.
In classic Aronofsky fashion, symbols, metaphors, and allusions abound. The film explores ideas concerning the environment, idol worship, patriarchy, and the nature of creation and destruction. That’s a lot to unpack. But for those who enjoy stories told as puzzles which you need to piece together yourself, there is much fun to be had in making sense of it all.
The best caution I can offer: know what you’re walking into. Aronofsky’s prior films, particularly The Fountain, offer insight into the risks he is willing to take in his storytelling. If you saw his commercially most successful film, Black Swan, and thought to yourself, that was weird—but not in a good way—you will more than likely hate this film. Mother! is not a straight story. It is not an easy film to watch. It will make you feel things you might not want to feel. It will make you work, hard, to make meaning of the visual metaphors and countless allusions. Mother! is a brilliant but challenging film. More than quality—and I vehemently defend the film’s acting, directing, writing—acceptance of this film will come down to personal preference. So, if psychological terror and unconventional storytelling are your cup of tea, you’re in luck. And to you, my friends, drink up!
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and he is a regular contributor at Cleaver Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.