“Howl to the moon” was the phrase Darren Aronofsky used to opaquely describe his feelings behind mother!, this impeccably mounted, nearly impossible-to-digest-on-one-viewing allegory for the folly of mankind. And truly, love it or absolutely f*cking hate it, mother! can really only be described in that phrase.
To speak much about the story of mother! is a spoiler, since the marketing has done a brilliant job of hiding its twists and turns, and because the film makes obvious references to the most popular book in the world. Essentially, an ego-driven writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife, an endlessly loving woman (Jennifer Lawrence), are met by an uninvited couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) — and the writer is happy for the couple’s admiration of his work, yet the wife realizes nothing and no one are quite like they seem.
From here though, the film becomes an admittedly pretentious, but gonzo exploration of the depravity that can be fit within one single house.
What can be said, without the fear of giving too much away, is that mother! is an equivalent to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but without the hope for life that Malick’s film glowed with. Rather, Darren Aronofsky’s film presents itself as a damning critique of many things, including, but not limited to religion, celebrity, global warming, immigration, war, trafficking, marriage, divorce and parenting.
The film is obvious in its ambitions, to the point where an engaged, literary-minded audience will quickly pick up the broad strokes at play. But the brazenness of it all comes from the fact that mother! also refuses to hold the audience’s hand, should they check out from this film’s delayed, but precipitous descent into humanity’s darkest depths.
If It is the ultimate crowd-pleasing horror film, then mother! is the ultimate soul-crushing one, albeit one brimming with the darkest of dark comedy — not far off from Dante’s playfully titled The Divine Comedy.
Much admiration, even from the audiences who reject the film’s aspirations and themes, must be lobbed toward the stunning work of Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique, whose cinematography is tightly framed here, and the incredible sound mixing crew, who, without any score, build a palpable sense of dread from everything that happens off-screen.
Most impressively, though, is the Academy Award-winning Lawrence’s ability to command the screen so effortlessly. Aronofsky and Libatique wisely frame all of the film from her perspective, either with a tight close-up on her face or medium shots where she can still be seen within the frame even if another character is the focus.
The willingness of Lawrence to literally and figuratively bare it all, physically and emotionally, in this film is absolutely commendable, but that framing nearly verges toward exploitative. However, the film’s dirtiness and its treatment of her character is what the film asks viewers to ponder as they leave the theater.
Is mankind worth saving, or are we all doomed to destroy the things we should be loving and taking care of the most? Aronofsky refuses to give an answer, even if he suggests a pessimistic view. For cinephiles who like their films that way, mother! may stand as a landmark for years to come.
Featured image via Paramount.