While IT has terrified audiences and continues to dominate at the box office, there is another film making the rounds which has been horrifying audiences in a much different way. Mother! is a strange film to say the least. It’s a bit of a slow burn that ratchets up the intensity as it goes along, but the payoff is a bit of a foregone conclusion by the time it rolls around. While Writer/Director Darren Aronofsky is best known for his visionary filmmaking style and his mind-bending psychological dramas like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, this just isn’t one of those movies as much as we (I) may have wanted it to be.
After directing the biblical epic Noah (2014), it would appear Aronofsky tasted the power of religious storytelling and wanted to put his own spin on things. Mother! is undoubtedly a biblical allegory (about God, nature and humankind) that’s incredibly violent on occasion and quite disturbing more often than not, but that revelation is intentionally disguised. However, I hesitate to call it a horror film although there is plenty to be afraid of throughout the anxiety inducing 121-minute runtime. This film is haunting…not for it’s traditional ghost-story-like mystery, but for it’s frighteningly tangible depiction of worship and human behavior. The plot is cyclical and that’s established right away, but the film is paced much better when it’s getting to the point. There is some good filmmaking technique and skill on display throughout and the caliber of the cast goes a long way in extending the movie’s grasp, but it’s not Aronofsky’s best work. That being said, he remained true to himself by delivering a film that is unquestionably bold and unapologetic…which is something Hollywood needs a lot more of.
Jennifer Lawrence is obviously the focal point of the film as her face is plastered all over the promotional material (and she is dating the director), but Javier Bardem delivers the standout performance among the stellar cast. His passion jumps off the screen and his tonal shifts are seamless. This allows him to ease back and forth between charismatic and menacing, which made for a powerful and sometimes intimidating presence depending on the mood. He had the benefit of playing the rangiest character, but his skill and intensity as a performer brought another level to role. Bardem should have once again put himself on the short list for Best Supporting Actor consideration at the end of the year.
Lawrence was good as the star, and maybe that’s even underselling her too much, but there was nothing particularly special about the performance. Over the course of her career she’s established herself as a talented, versatile actress who can dig into her roles and pull a great deal out of them. The Oscar winner has thrived when given realistic, grounded characters (Joy, Silver Linings Playbook) but unfortunately this just isn’t one of those. There’s not a great deal of nuance in the character because she’s almost emotionally plateaued from the start, so her temperament never seems appropriate given the increasingly undesirable circumstances. Near the very end things eventually boil over and the emotion on screen finally matches what the audience should be internalizing at that moment, but even that is short lived. She does, however, do a wonderful job garnering sympathy from the audience due to many moments where you’ll project your own feelings onto the character.
Academy Award Nominees Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer solidified the foundation for this film with their supporting roles as husband and wife strangers who catalyze the mystery at the center of the plot. Harris was strong, as always, bringing his definitive stage presence and reverence to the project but it was really Pfeiffer that stole the scenes as a supporting player. She plays a magnificent bitch who sets the downward spiral of events in motion with her selfishness and complete lack of respect. It was a lot of fun to watch the veteran actress constantly on the offensive and her interactions with Lawrence do bring some much needed levity to an otherwise heavy film. Somehow neither Harris nor Pfeiffer has won an Oscar despite the seven nominations between them, but she may find herself in contention for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts in this film.
There is one character throughout the film that plays a huge role but remains silent…the house itself. Location Manager Adrian Knight utilized a really beautiful home with a circular layout that reflects and amplifies the story’s cyclical nature. Matthew Libatique teamed with Aronofsky again (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) to provide the cinematography and utilized the design of the house wonderfully. He created these great continuous shots as the characters spill from room to room, making for chaotic and dizzying visuals that really punctuate the mania already present in the script. Andrew Weisblum tied it all together in the editing room which must have been a continuity nightmare given the highly detailed and complicated set design put forth by Larry Dias and Martine Kazemirchuk. The final product on screen is unsettling to say the least, but nevertheless a testament to the hard work put in by the crew. Complimentary of the camera work, this film utilizes sound to powerful effect which was crucial in guiding the lense since so much is going on all over the house. The displaced noise imposes dread quite often and amplifies the intensity beyond what is merely seen.
This film can stand alone on its merit but people are going to have a tough time with it. No way around that fact. The graphic depictions of violence towards women and children will immediately disqualify the film’s value among a certain portion of the moviegoing audience. It’s polarizing. After its premier at the Venice Film Festival it received a standing ovation among a cascade of boos from the audience. Frankly, it probably doesn’t deserve either but the film clearly has an effect on people…which is probably what Aronofsky was aiming at.
Recommendation: If you’re an Aronofsky fan then stylistically this is up your alley. The film’s content will be divisive and likely alienate Christians, which is part of the reason it has only earned back ⅓ of its production budget after two weeks domestically. Go see it for it’s technical achievements and production quality, take a pass if the content it something you can’t handle.