Darren Aronofsky has made dark, disturbing films before. So many of them focus on women ― what scares them, what drives them, what secretly arouses them, and especially what haunts them. With Black Swan, we watched Natalie Portman have a mental collapse as she agonized to get the dance of the Black Swan in Swan Lake exactly right — perfect. Following her every move as she worriedly examined herself in a mirror or barfed up food or nailed a pirouette was alternately suffocating and beautiful. In Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, old women and young women push and pull at each other, fighting and resenting the frustrating damnation of fleeting youth. Unlike men, women have the most power when they’re young and can hold men in their thrall, but it’s a power that younger women often don’t fully understand and haven’t yet mastered. Ironically, older women become wiser just as their power of allure is felt to diminish, so what then?
Aronofsky has taken us to extraordinary places before, as he did with The Fountain, but never has he pursued a woman to such weird and dark realms as he does with mother!. The darkness where he wants us to go this time follows a route mapped out to our primeval psyche, and his complete commitment to its horrifying dreamscape makes the journey all the more real since it feels so inevitable, inescapable. This film is like sitting down and listening to someone tell you their dream ― if tangible remnants of that dream had remained in the room to alter your shared reality.
Since its impact depends on heightened levels of psychological fuckery, mother! opens itself to many interpretations. How you walk out of it, what you conclude, what you think about afterwards will probably tell you much about yourself. Are you someone who can regard unusual films in the same way we experience labyrinthine architecture: as structures to enter, inhabit, get lost in and explore? Are you someone who is left feeling alienated if the story being told has nothing to do with how you perceive your own life? Or do you allow a great film to drill deep into places inside your soul that you rarely choose to grapple with to unearth your own fears, sadness, self-doubt?
One way to interpret mother! is to see it as the kind of dream a woman never wants to have — so of course human nature ensures, perversely, that most do. When a young woman becomes a mother for the first time, she can feel overwhelmed with fear and panic on an hourly basis. Such fears thrive on unlikely extremes and irrational happenings. What if there’s a fire? What if this food is tainted? What if that toy is toxic? What if she’s inattentive for a few seconds and someone abducts her child? What if… what if… what if… Another way we might try to decode mother! is to overlay its sticky conflicts with what what we think we know of Aronofsky’s prior relationship with Rachel Weisz. Still another is to see the film more as a broader metaphor on the current terrifying state of the human race — the collision of our lofty hopes and ideals vs. our bleak despairs and realities. Millions of people may turn to religion to address today’s problems by relying on a 2000-year-old book of comforting parables to explain away the issues, but that will of course drag its own set of pre-Enlightenment horrors into our lives. Any movie this rich and strange will invite many fascinating paths to analysis in the coming weeks and months, but one thing’s for sure: there will be no easy direct interpretation to satisfy everyone.
As I let mother! get its tentacles into me, I sort of hovered between troubling phases of my own life, as memories deeply buried were brought back to sudden horrifying life. I drifted back and forth between the rattling pangs of these recollections, but there was never a moment, not one second, when this film was boring, where it wasn’t drilling into a different part of my mind, body, and soul. Aronofsky and his trusted collaborator Matthew Libatique keep the camera pinned tight to Jennifer Lawrence’s impossibly camera-friendly face as this isolated young wife confronts things she can’t possibly understand. Since the stalking choreography of the camerawork gives the sensation of a slinky surveillance drone, there’s an almost kinky voyeuristic pleasure in watching her perform mundane tasks like cook or clean or do laundry. She has seen to it that the house she and her poet husband inhabit has been carefully and beautifully restored, with such extreme attention to detail its as if she’s constructed a cocoon that’s gone overboard, turning their nest into a hermetically sealed display case.
If none of this tells you much about the events that transpire in the movie, the oblique approach is deliberate. To reveal too much more about mother! would be to ruin the rush when the shocks begin to fall like ominous dominoes. Reading about those in advance would be no fun for you. Normally I think people make too much of avoiding spoilers, but in this case you really want to walk in as fresh as possible, and allow the movie to unfold with perverse unpredictably as it did for me the first time.
The only thing I would say is to be prepared for a film that operates on a metaphorical level, not a literal one. Be prepared for mother! to get very weird and very dark in ways that no amount of preparation can shield you from. Take a moment to appreciate how rare it is to see a major studio like Paramount stand behind such a challenging, uncompromising work as this. In so many ways these days, it feels like all the art has been sanitized out of cinema, and all the outré aspiration of unfettered genius has vanished along with it. Part of this is a desire to be as politically correct as possible so as not to risk offending anyone, so that we judge our films with stricter standards than we judge candidates to lead our government. Part of it is the abundance of clattering opinions that inundate social media in a culture where everyone is a self-appointed film critic, creating a strangely confining hive mind that ultimately produces one kind of film that is acceptable. You have to admire someone like Aronofsky, willing to dive so deeply into the primal mind and create what has to be seen, above all else, as a singular work of ultra-personal art.
I can’t pretend to have arrived at any firm conclusions about what mother! intends to say, and I’m okay with that. It’s easier to appraise it on its formidable technical merits. The acting is great across-the-board, most especially Jennifer Lawrence in the lead who gives herself over completely to the part, perhaps taking her performance to such impressive extremes she might have some residual hard drive damage. She turns out to be the perfect Aronofsky heroine: sturdy Kentucky stock, a girl who’s so durably brazen that no matter what she’s endured she seems to emerge unscathed. In mother!, her forthright assurance in making herself exactly who she wants to be mirrors the pristine new home that her character has picked apart and put through the rigors of reshaping, perhaps with such meticulous torment that she is unrecognizable by the end.
Michelle Pfeiffer is so good in her sinister role it’s a shame there isn’t more of her on screen. I kind of wanted her to be there for the whole movie, a co-lead with Lawrence, but that would be a different movie. Wicked, witty, with a sense of perfectly timed slyness, Pfeiffer is someone we need on screen more often. But there is no question that this film belongs entirely to Lawrence. There isn’t a lot of room in this elegantly compressed claustrophobia for anyone or anything else. That is really the power of this performance because almost everything you can imagine that exists is put into this film and yet Lawrence holds us in her thrall throughout.
It’s essential to the sustained vitality of American cinema for Hollywood to make room for films like mother!, to allow filmmakers like Aronofsky free rein. Cinema can still be a great medium if it’s permitted the freedom to show us things we’ve never seen before, except in our dreams and in our nightmares. It can become a canvas that moves and breathes. It can be a living tableau as it’s been so often in the past, in the hands of the greatest directors the medium has known. So here’s to Aronofsky and his untamed creativity, here’s to Paramount for having the balls to believe in him, to finance and distribute his vision, and finally, here’s to Jennifer Lawrence who proves her ferociously willing to go anywhere a role requires.
I walked out of mother! feeling like I’d been hit head-on by a bullet train. My brain was still searching to make connections in the plot, to figure it all out, to somehow explain what I’ve seen. Then I recognized that disorientated sensation. I saw that it was like waking up suddenly from a nightmare — the kind you have to wrestle free from before you can regain consciousness. You wake up panting and sweating, pulse pounding. As you lay back to regroup, your brain tries to make sense of it all. But before long you realize there is no point, really. Our minds make use of our dreams in ways that are still barely understood. We have to trust there’s a purpose for the terrifying trips conjured by our imaginations that our heads will find a way to parse. Dreams do that for us. So does art.