mother! defies description! For those who took the leap or were led there unwittingly by a friend or spouse, you found yourself peering into the abyss. Writer, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was written in five days. It may take me five months to be satisfied enough about the whats and whys to let it go. Not since Martin Scorsese’s Silence last year has a picture stuck with me this long.
One cannot categorize mother! into one of those tidy film genres. But let’s give it a go. Definitely a horror film. It’s also an allegory (not a standard movie category). But first and foremost it’s a product of the filmmaker’s deep passion and a desire to make something very different. To take the necessary path. To be true to the idea. Attend to every detail. To the art of it. That demonstrates courage. To stop at nothing to collect all the artifacts required to make the film. To have the confidence in the larger team to pull it off.
There was considerable secrecy during production. People didn’t really know what it was about which could have contributed to some of the negative reaction it received once released. “Hey, it has Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. That’s going to be fun.” Not even close.
The final product has been controversial to say the least. I must admit that there were times during my viewing when I felt uneasy, but the craft of the picture along with the amazing performances caused me to lean in. To pay close attention. I found myself dissecting mother! on a granular level. There is so much to unpack and discover.
Many of the films now made in the U.S. look and sound the same. Shot on digital. Packed with CGI. Story retreads. Everybody is a Super Hero. Repetitive music. Explosions. Have you noticed a certain deep sound that comes standard in almost all previews you see before your feature begins? The bass drop sound effect (called “Bwah” by insiders) is standard in almost every trailer.
Hollywood has always been a bit of a copycat business. Studios now prefer to latch onto a franchise that allows them to turn out multiple films which is much safer for them financially. But studios now have a lot of new competition from Netflix and even Amazon. I’m glad Paramount took this chance and did it right.
Does mother! go too far? Was this shot choice or those words written necessary?…
Picture opens on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), engulfed in flames. Bruises and blood dots cover her scuffed face. A tear begins to fall from her right eye. Cut to Him (Javier Bardem), placing a large crystal on a pedestal. His hands are dirty, as if they have been digging in the earth. A sly smile appears on his face.
In a heartbeat we learn we are entirely on our own. There will be no Cliffs Notes version. Nothing clearly spelled out. No narrator or helpful on-screen hints (“Three years later…”). Even though we are thrown into the fire from the first frame there are hundreds of clues sprinkled throughout. Those clues and their connections add texture and stick in your brain for days.
No character in this film has been given a name and there is no music soundtrack.
Mother awakes in an empty bed. She is the restorer of this house that suffered an intense fire. She is the project manager and has done all the physical work “wall to wall” while Him, the great writer, broods and waits for inspiration.
One evening while they are in the drawing room there’s a knock at the door. Man (Ed Harris) enters and immediately captures Him’s attention. Regaling him with stories and offering praise for Him’s work as a writer. He is also called the poet. Numerous aliases. Man fires up a cigarette using a lighter adorned with an odd symbol. Mother informs him that there’s no smoking, but he is indifferent to her request. Soon Him shows Man to his study and points out the beautiful crystal we saw at the beginning of the film. Man is captivated by its beauty. He constantly coughs and drinks too much, so Him invites Man to stay the night without consulting Mother.
The next day Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Man’s wife, shows up standing on the front porch, roller bag in tow as if she just got off the plane and is arriving for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon they talk about family and Man shares photos of their two sons. Mother is unsettled that Him invites them to stay as long as they like. And just like that the Jeannie is out of the bottle and Mother is powerless to stop it.
After an awkward exchange between Mother and Woman, Mother uncovers a suspicious item in their luggage. While discussing this with her husband, Man and Woman steal away to the third floor study. They want to see the crystal. Suddenly we hear breaking glass. The crystal hits the floor and shatters, setting off a fit of anger in Him.
He boards up the study and in a fit of spontaneous rage, snaps off the door knob with a swift barehanded blow. It tumbles off the stairs to the floor below. Mother picks it up and places it on the breakfront in the foyer.
The sons of Man and Woman suddenly enter the house. They are loud and rude. A fight breaks out between the brothers over a trust document their father (dying of a disease) has written. As the scuffle escalates, the oldest son finds the abandoned door knob on the breakfront and strikes his brother resulting in a grave injury. Him accompanies the family to the hospital.
Mother has a deep emotional relationship with the sprawling house which is located in a vast green meadow in the middle of nowhere. “This is home.” She always goes barefoot, caresses the walls and occasionally goes in close to hear its heartbeat. While in the basement, she comes across some, well, shall we say odd things. An exploding light bulb. Blood running down the foundation walls. Mother is curious as a cat but we don’t know how many lives she has already used. Scratching at the wall with a pair of channel lock pliers she opens up a hidden space packed with massive steel tanks and a hopping frog.
She experiences episodes of stomach pain and chases it away by mixing mysterious, but effective golden crystals with water. It soothes her and allows her to return to what has now become an ongoing nightmare. Her elixir is kept in a brown, antique glass bottle with a well-worn label making it difficult to read. The only words I could make out were “remedy, pharmacy and Buffalo, N.Y.” There are a series of numbers at the top of the label “096” followed by a symbol that seems to match the one on Man’s lighter. Some have identified it as the Wendehorn symbol.
Shortly after Him returns from the hospital, Man and Woman also appear, closely followed by a number of friends. The group was invited by Him to mourn the loss of the younger brother, but they lack manners and Mother is more and more becoming a steeping pot, and not the good kind. People continue to arrive swarming the three level structure and eventually collapsing a sink that has not been properly braced in the remodel. Water pipes burst, flooding the kitchen. Mother snaps and her roar drives out the unwanted guests, leaving her and Him to have a brief, private exchange.
They consummate their marriage; something we can believe has never take place. Mother awakes. Her face bathed in beaming sunlight. She is absolutely radiant and dead certain she is with child. Suddenly he finds lighting in a bottle and begins to write. He produces his opus.
The Poet’s book sells out on the first day. To celebrate, Mother prepares a feast fit for a god and sets the table for an intimate dinner for two.
Her carefully planned celebration is interrupted by a large group of people descending on their house, which is now a vessel adrift in the ocean of the darkness of humanity. They want to see the Poet. He has written an algorithm for human salvation and purpose. His desire to be loved by everyone has come true and the ultimate sacrifice is now inevitable.
Him’s publisher Herald (Kristen Wig) arrives with the second printing and a book signing takes shape. Later we see that Herald has a much more serious role than a simple messenger.
The crowd moves slowly at first. Then more aggressively through measured small annoyances; people helping themselves to food or the bathroom. Soon things get out of hand and all out chaos takes over. Worship of the Poet is the unspoken excuse. Him has given them permission to make his home theirs. “Share, like the Poet said. Share.” They move from wanting to see him, to getting his autograph, to touching him, to stealing something he owns. There will be more desires to satisfy. Him adores it. He cannot create without a mess. Others must sacrifice.
The house is transformed into Dante’s inferno with each floor becoming another gate of hell. People are tied-up, put in cages, shot at point blank range. Soldiers burst in, molotov cocktails are thrown. Mother is nine months pregnant and finds herself crawling over dead bodies covered in ash throughout the house. Contractions are coming faster now. She wants desparately to get out of the house, “The door! The door!” Him finds her, but Instead of leaving he takes her to the third floor study.
Mother gives birth to their son. Him wants to hold the child but she will not have it.
The final scenes are difficult to watch as they involve the infant and some brutal treatment of Mother by the followers. The door knob Him snapped off the study and used by Man’s son to kill his younger brother is now in the hand of the Zealot (Stephen McHattie). He wields it and brings Mother to the floor.
With nothing left to lose, Mother takes matters into her own hands. She has found Man’s lighter and sets off a fury that completely transforms the situation. All has changed. Him and Mother have one last exchange, but Him still needs more.
“…Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was… I need one last thing.”
Mr. Aronofsky was inspired by his work with The Sierra Club and concerns about climate change. Humans are destroying mother earth. There are obvious Biblical references that are woven into the complex message. Or perhaps it’s a strong commentary on society today.
One of the promotion posters used by mother! was obviously modeled after the ionic image Roman Polanski chose for his breakthrough film Rosemary’s Baby. Both stories center around a pregnant wife, an artistic husband struggling to find his way and religious beliefs that humans twist into a cult. Controversy surrounded each picture.
About halfway through mother! I recalled Luis Buñel’s brilliant, surreal masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel. In the film, a group of high-society friends are invited to a mansion for dinner and find themselves inexplicably unable to leave. Power and helplessness are enduring themes.
William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was made into the movie event of 1973 by William Friedkin. Audience reactions to it visceral. Again, religious motifs. But The Exorcist was a bestseller and the story widely known well ahead of the film’s release. mother! had no such pre-launch.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is packed with symbolism. Base commander and Brigadier General Jack Ripper’s gone mad. His word game; “purity of essence, peace on earth,” and the mythical CRM 114 Discriminator are carefully planted elements that weave the fabric of the film at the edges and slowly tighten it around the story.
mother! with all it’s careful production and staging is wonderfully balanced between a film and a play. The stage, an amazing eight-sided, three floor mansion is the perfect venue for this story. There are no dead ends in the house, just more passageways to mystery.
Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fantastic performance as Mother. It was obviously a challenge physically, but mentally this must have pushed her into a new space.
Javier Bardem is essentially a chameleon, delivering new versions of himself in each outing.
The eye-popping film is due largely to Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Pi) 16mm handheld photography. His camera constantly whips through the house and encircles the characters. Three basic shots are all that are used to tell the story. His camera is a personal diary of the story.
The sound design is truly astounding. The endless tight shots are paired with sounds and dialogue coming at you from all angles, giving the experience more depth. Andrew Weisblum’s editing (Black Swan, The Wrestler), which took 53 weeks, really is a miracle given the framing limitations and complexity of the shot list.
Although it is difficult to give this a whole-hearted recommendation. If you are a serious film-goer and appreciate high-level craftwork then this is a must see. mother! is a rare find these days.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures. Thank you.