Mother! (2017)

by Matt Piucci

DMother!arren Aronofsky is one of Hollywood’s best filmmakers and takes risks that simply cannot be found in most standard films. His most recent film Mother! has been excoriated in various publications, and also highly praised - I can’t find anyone who says it is mediocre. The film received one of the very few “F” ratings ever given from CinemaScore and a “0” from Rex Reed, although Reed’s rejection may the film’s greatest recommendation. I find Reed to be among film criticism’s most pretentious snoots and if he hates it, I am immediately interested. But I do find Mother! difficult to rate. What I can say is that “0” or "F" is extremely unfair and snarky, films this provocative can never be rated so poorly, and if people are talking about it, how can it be that bad?

Jennifer Lawrence is Aronofsky’s current girlfriend and is in the title role and in virtually every shot. Javier Bardem plays her older husband, a self-obsessed poet called “Him” who is experiencing writer’s block. They are by far the most important characters and they are both trying to conceive and get through Bardem’s writer’s block, both metaphors for creation in general. I believe the story is most easily explained as a modern Creation/Apocalypse myth, as well as an ecological cautionary tale, and that viewing it as horror film is a mistake.

I suppose it may be a metaphor for the creative process, since the blocked writer is a key character who uses chaos to move his “art” forward. Obviously, it is allegorical when the characters are all named generically, a very Greek practice. They have names like "Him" (Bardem as God?), "Mother" (Lawrence as Mother Earth?), Man and Woman with Younger and Older Sons (Ed Harris, Adam; Michelle Pfeiffer, Eve and their sons Cain and Abel?) Everyone else is named as an attitude or an action- Consoler, Bumbler, Fool, Zealot.

Some have said that the film’s tone shifts a few times and feels more like a few different films stitched together, and that this inconsistent tone may be the movie’s biggest failing. It did not feel that way to me and I would argue that it is the same tone slowly cranked up, like a frog unknowingly boiling slowly to death in hot water. It starts out like a Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett play – a couple in understated and dry conflict in a near empty old house in the middle of nowhere with no obvious roads or driveway, surrounded by an utterly bucolic field of tall grass. Slowly, it becomes more of a nightmare for Jennifer Lawrence’s character, containing those very dream-like absurd moments when one almost asks one’s self if they are dreaming. As the tension and distress build for Lawrence, like the aforementioned frog, it becomes an even more feverish nightmare, and then an orgy of insanity. It is at the ending the film probably loses most of the audience (and its moorings, I might add).

If indeed this is a modern derivation of a pre-Christian myth, these Gods and Goddesses are even less mature than the Old Testament bible. Javier Bardem is unsophisticated and primal, more like Apollo or even a Gilgamesh-styled animal/Man God, predating the Sky Gods. Jennifer Lawrence’s passive Earth Mother seems even more ancient, although a modern touch of helplessness in the face of the “superior” Sky God seems a bit weird. Powerful earth Goddesses are common in early mythology. This twist may be the key to the modern ecological cautionary tale, showing the Sky God worshippers, (such as modern Christians who may deny science) what can happen when they disrespect their Mother Earth. Nonetheless, the entire Old Testament plot line from Genesis is there to be seen- God alone with the Earth, then Man or Adam (Ed Harris) shows up and gets drunk, and when we see him puking out his booze, he has a wound on his back. It is at precisely that moment that Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as Eve - made out of his rib? Then the kids show up, two sons, one older and one younger, and they are fighting. Until the younger one kills the older one. Hmm. All the while Jennifer Lawrence is flitting about, quietly questioning this invasion of privacy, but doing nothing about it. Until it gets completely out of hand, you want to slap Lawrence's character for her passive acceptance of the absurd goings on. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, who have probably been in a few Beckett/Pinter type plays, do very well as...whoever they are supposed to be. Pfieffer's drunken and cruel loudmouth is particularly delicious. To push the metaphor further along, Harris and Pfeiffer defy the decree of their hosts and go into a forbidden room and break one Bardem’s prized and mysterious possessions, a crystal, allegedly the source of his inspiration. Garden of Eden? The Apple? They are then banished. Well, “God” (Bardem) lets them back in, of course, and his unstated price is unquestioning adulation and worship.

Things really start to go off the rails when the home in the middle of nowhere all of a sudden begins to accrue guests at a wake for the dead son (Abel?), which "Him" agrees to host without consulting "Mother". By this time, reality is but a distant telescopic blur as the murder takes place, but there are no cops, no questions, just Lawrence cleaning up the mess alone, as Bardem has rushed off to the hospital with the family. No forms of transportation are ever seen, just the amber waves of grain and an increasingly less empty house. Mother’s passivity becomes even more annoying, as she endures insult after injury to the home she has been fixing up, seemingly since the beginning of time. The dialogue at this moment is a bit troubling to me, as the God/Goddess metaphor and dynamic is intruded upon by very earthbound and trivial domestic squabbling between husband and wife. The end of the argument produces make-up sex and Lo! Lawrence is pregnant. Simultaneously, Bardem’s writer’s block disappears. Does he care about the child? Not really, it is only an extension of his own ego, as we find out later in a most disturbing way. The last fifteen minutes descends into a Brugelian or Goyan nightmare as the child is born and a veritable sea of followers/worshippers arrive at the idyllic home in bucolic paradise, transforming it into a hell. This hell is also a metaphor for what people - even those who are well meaning – do to destroy the Earth, their Mother. Jennifer Lawrence as Mother Earth certainly endures countless people’s foibles, from simple foolishness to outright stupid cruelty.

If you don't see this as metaphor and allegory, then it quickly becomes a truly annoying and twisted version of the SNL skit "The Things that Wouldn't Leave." And a very bad horror film.

Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream is a work of genius and in Modern Hollywood, he should get credit for not boring us with recycled pablum. His batting average, so to speak, is quite good as Black Swan, Pi and The Wrestler in 2008 are also very good films. But there is some drivel here, especially the ending. But at least the nonsense is novel and unexpected. What it is not is a horror film, or at least not by my definition. There are very few horror films that I like. By the time the most horrific things happen, the action is so absurd, it is funny. And it is not a horror parody attempt either like that awful Cabin in the Woods in 2012.

Ultimately, it is thought-provoking, and I vastly prefer the flawed efforts of a daring filmmaker to the mindless repetition of generic blather that is the modern Hollywood release.

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