The Mob’s Reel: Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ Is Well-Crafted but Heavy-Handed
The Mob’s Reel is a film column that features reviews and essays covering everything from the latest blockbusters to standout indies.
Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror film mother! is an absurdist biblical allegory that quickly loses steam despite being the director’s boldest and most difficult film to date.
In the remote countryside, a young woman has tasked herself with renovating the home she shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), a renowned poet struggling with writer’s block. One evening, a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up unannounced, claiming to have been under the impression that the couple’s home was a bed-and-breakfast. The poet insists that the man stay the night despite his wife’s misgivings. The film plays out like a slow-burning, hallucinatory fever dream as Lawrence’s unnamed character becomes increasingly frustrated by a growing number of houseguests, including a venomous Michelle Pfeiffer as the stranger’s wife. Bardem’s character becomes energized and inspired by his guests, blind to his wife’s concerns that they have no regard for her or their home.
The director’s metaphor smoothie covers a lot of ground: mankind’s destructive tendencies toward nature; the New and Old Testaments; celebrity worship; artists’ narcissism; and Aronofsky’s real-life relationships. He becomes so wrapped up in wall-to-wall symbolism that he leaves almost no room for compelling characters. Aronofsky isn’t trying to be subtle, but making every inspiration and connection so overbearingly obvious leaves little for the audience to chew on. I appreciate an artist being blunt and uncompromising in their vision, but a movie screaming that it’s About Something™ every chance it gets just doesn’t quite work for me.
Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are essentially Adam and Eve. Bardem and Lawrence are God and Mother Earth. When every person onscreen seems more like a walking allegory than a fully-formed character, it becomes difficult to care about anything that happens to them. There’s no tension. By the time the blisteringly brutal and disturbing third act comes around, it lands with a thud; there’s too much of a disconnect to truly appreciate Aronofsky’s absurdist symphony of chaos, no matter how shocking the imagery. The only time I felt a visceral reaction was during a scene in which Lawrence is viciously attacked, but that has more to do with the sheer discomfort of seeing a woman so unflinchingly beaten than with the thematic context of the sequence.
While not everything clicks, there’s still plenty to appreciate; Lawrence is quite good in the lead role, giving a grounded performance as a warm, anxious woman slowly coming undone as her environment becomes surreal and hostile. On the technical side of things, Aronofsky’s frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique is on deck to shape the film’s disquieting visual language, his cinematography as intense and intimate as ever.
Despite the clear skill on display, I was left feeling neither intellectually nor emotionally stirred, frustrated without being challenged. This is not to say that the film is vapid or lacks audacity; mother! is bold and confident, with a passionate Aronofsky going for broke like never before. I wish I were as provoked and unnerved as many others seem to have been, but I simply didn’t have that strong of a reaction.