Review: For “mother!” Aronofsky trades subtlety for potentially meaningful mayhem

“It affects everyone in a different way,” says a narcissistic Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky’s hieroglyphics-filled-cavern of a movie, “mother!”

Yeah. I’ll say.

This is a film that has been nothing if not a bastion for discussion as the Cinematic Year transitions to awards season. “IT” has horrified mainstream audiences for two weeks (as well as satisfied New Line Cinema to the tune of the biggest horror opening ever) and I’d like to think that Paramount picked the week after to release “mother!” in order to provide a different – a VERY different – sort of disturbing experience in the theater.

Questions of the “What does it all even mean?” variety have certainly filled that discussion surrounding the latest offering from Aronofsky, as he continues to experiment the decade after receiving renown and even awards recognition for “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

But pervading those “what” questions, suitably, have also been a spattering of “how” inquiries. As in, “How far is this movie, and Aronofsky, going to go?”

“mother!” may be vague, ambiguous even, but it certainly isn’t subtle. It’s unusual turn after unusual turn, and even if you don’t realize you’re beating beaten mercilessly in allegory, you known damn well you’re being clubbed in the senses with freakish, non-stop non-sequitor.

It’s hard to call the 2-hour film anything short of a curiosity. You can join in the ride if you want by simply absorbing what’s on screen. But that’s not where the fun lies, unless all you’ve ever wanted from your movies is an Eli Roth offering that has something to say.

First of all, if there’s any movie you should know the least about before going into, it’s this one. (You can rest easy if you’re reading this before your first viewing that no major or moderate spoilers will be found in these paragraphs.) Though Aronofsky certainly has a major story to re-tell through Jennifer Lawrence’s trials and tribulations, it’s much more fun to Reddit up on those theories afterwards.

That’s because “mother!”, for as much a sensory experience as it is (Sound Editing/Mixing Oscars could be in the…mix) is awash in symbolism and aforementioned allegory. So much so that it’s a hell of a time trying to unpack it all. It’s a cerebral drama in seemingly the most grotesque and barbaric of visions, but one that certainly has statements to be made.

There may be a method to this madness, and there absolutely is a message.

It’s a message that will become clearer and clearer to some in the audience as Lawrence and company descend into a very particular kind of hell in the movie’s final act. But that doesn’t mean other themes aren’t at play; I counted three or four potential subjects that Aronofsky could have been critiquing/conveying/toying with in the first 45ish minutes.

I won’t divulge them. That would detract from your experience. But let’s grab a beer and discuss them afterwards, because this is a movie that drips with so many semantics and manifestations of the world at its carnal worst that you’ll be trying to connect the two for days afterward, even if you convince yourself you were completely turned off by Aronofsky’s unrestrained imagination.

Not everything in “mother!” is vague. There are certain details that stand out as red flags, clues to remember for later. The cues of isolation. Lawrence’s white clothes contrasted against the darker attire of nearly everyone else. The house being its own character, in a more literal sense than you’d expect.

I’m almost sure that some of those details were placed intentionally by Aronofsky to throw us off his scent.

With all this talk of a film that is a hell-bent on going to hell and back to tell the story of (SUBJECT REMOVED TO REFRAIN FROM SPOILING) through extended metaphor, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that “mother!” is lethargic.

Far from it.

It makes you uncomfortable as hell, sure, and has been proudly marketed by Paramount as “The most controversial movie since ‘A Clockwork Orange’” (Mel Gibson would like a word). But in an age where it’s so easy to get lost in a dreamlike trance with the majority of studio films (See: Marvel Studios), why not counteract that with a bit of nightmare to jolt us awake in our seats?

At the very least, the production value of “mother!”, given its solitary setting and symbolically layered premise, is something to be admired. This is the most no-holds-barred example of studio filmmaking in as long as I can remember, and in an age where Disney is firing up-and-coming visionaries for not conforming to what they want in a “Star Wars” film, that kind of creative freedom should be embraced. Here, it’s an absolute rush.

Even when there’s certain parts where the audience is torn between being utterly horrified or guffawing out loud. “It affects everyone in a different way.” It sure, does.

And now, a matter of filmmaking etiquette that Aronofsky presents front-and-center with “mother!”: Does the fact that a movie necessitates repeat viewing diminish its authenticity?

Personally, I am already booking the seat for my next showing. I wanted to return to this world immediately after the credits rolled. Not because I could equate some of what I was seeing on-screen with cinematic glee, per se, but because there were almost certainly some details that I missed, and larger ones that I still just need to figure out.

It stays with you in that way. At least, it did for me. And if I decide to give up and Google Aronofsky’s meaning, then I’ll probably watch it a third time with a whole new mindset. And I’d expect I’ll be satisfied in a different way.

Some asides: Music is absent in “mother!”, with Aronofsky instead electing for pinpoint attention to sound. From teacups breaking to more supernatural auditory occurrences, those are the director’s reassurances that once the movie gets from 0 to 100 mph, it rarely dips below 85.

The film also entirely follows Lawrence. We’re not just seeing the experience through her eyes, we’re living it; the camera is attached to her, and for the amount of closeups Aronofsky shoots of her, it’s surprisingly never a frustration decision. Bardem is the more tantalizing of the two, but that’s a result of the writing more than anything else.

Michelle Pfeiffer is her usual darkly sultry self, and Ed Helms is fine as the couple’s first visitor. Revealing other cast members, though, would be giving away too much.

What? I meant what I said about going in knowing the bare minimum. And the most bare minimum information anyone needs to know is this is a batshit crazy director at his batshit craziest.

Roger Ebert once said, “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” If that’s the true barometer for a film’s success, then “mother!” might be the best film of the year.

At the very least, it’s an absorbing, boldly made and deftly innovative movie that challenges viewers in ways we should want to be challenged. If we got two or three “mother!s” every year, Hollywood would be better off.

And so would we.

 

 

“mother!” is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Helms, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

2017

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