Film Review: “mother!” — Welcome to the Pagan Cult of the Eye
No doubt many will find director Darren Aronofsky’s transgressive vision overwrought, but the film is undeniably powerful.
mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
By Tim Jackson
In mother!, Darren Aronofsky takes Jean Paul Sartre’s declaration that “Hell is other people” to an extreme. Jennifer Lawrence (‘mother’) lives in a ramshackle old house with her much older husband (‘husband’), played by Javier Bardem. She is trying to create a nice home out of this rambling structure, while he struggles to make it as a writer. We’ve barely met the two when out of nowhere a crusty visitor appears at the door (Ed Harris as ‘man’). Much to the consternation of ‘mother,’ ‘husband’ invites ‘man’ to stay the night. Soon ‘man’ is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer as ‘woman’). The unwanted visitors become increasingly invasive. When two sons show up (‘younger brother’ and ‘oldest son’), savaging one another and arguing about their parents’ estate, things take a more violent turn. Brian and Domnhall Gleeson (sons of the actor Brendan Gleeson) play the battling brothers. At first, what felt like an Edward Albee play (A Delicate Balance, anyone?) evolves into, among other things, a Cain and Abel scenario as the film roars from the absurd to the biblical and then on to the apocalyptic.
Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, pummels us with allegory and symbols. Plot? Psychology? Forget about them. They are not of interest. The film’s initial images suggest the primal mayhem to come: Lawrence’s face, ravaged and burned, stares out — the title comes up. We see the interior of a burned house; a charred figure, lying in bed, rises up. It is ‘mother.’ Bardem stares into a crystal. Lawrence plasters a white wall. Is this mysterious space the tabula rasa for an unfolding act of creation? In the wall, she sees a pulsating organ: is this a fetus or perhaps a heart? Lawrence is photographed dressed in diaphanous robes like a beatific Earth Mother. Finally, ‘mother’ sits calmly as her ‘husband,’ frustrated by writer’s block, fidgets about. Bardem’s goofy smile can change to menace in an instant. He declares love for his much younger wife, yet he ignores everything she says. What he desperately needs are the presence of other people, who arrive at the home in growing numbers. Mother wants isolation and peace, a place where she can tend her own garden. Nurturing ‘mother’ and tyrant father explode into a fierce conflict that takes on mythic proportions. She becomes a symbol of a much abused planet; he is a vengeful and petty god.
Scenes evolve into mind-blowing chaos. The numerous visitors multiply like mad, a global explosion. The communal swarm develops an insatiable desire to own a piece of the author and they begin ripping apart the interior of the house. As his ego is fed the husband becomes more godlike and lunatic The trajectory of the film is a relentless slide toward a horrific Armageddon. The narrative serves up a Hieronymus Bosch procession of mobs and atrocities, images that mirror the mind-deadening pickings on the internet, cell phones, TV news and reality shows, the bloody and sadistic fare served up in endless walking dead, zombie, and doomsday film scenarios. mother! is a contemporary Garden of Earthly Delights.
At the center of the pandemonium is Lawrence, shot close up with a handheld camera that follows her every move, often hovering only inches from her face. Her wounded innocence is meant to sear itself into the viewer’s consciousness. We experience the mayhem from her vantage point. The actress immerses herself in this difficult role. Like Mother Earth herself, she periodically renews hope, only to be battered back into despair by new catastrophes. Both Lars von Trier (in Dancer in the Dark with Bjork and in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Aronofsky (with Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream and Natalie Portman in Black Swan) can put actresses through the ringer. The fact that women are at the center of this struggle for civilization (or what’s left of it) brings to mind the “dissident feminism” of controversial thinker Camille Paglia. Women hunger for civilization, while men hunger for brute action. Similarly, the film’s ‘mother’ energizes the natural world, only to be beaten into helplessness by destructive males. In Sexual Personae, Paglia argues:
Cinema is sexual showing. Plot and dialogue are word baggage. Cinema, the most eye-intense of genres, has restored pagan antiquities’ cultic exhibitionism. Spectacle is the pagan cult of the eye.
I favor mother!’s transgressive vision. Many will no doubt find it overwrought. But the film is not without a kind of dreadful black humor that comes from its excesses, its blatant symbolism, and the haunted house clichés. Its combination of outrage and humor get under your skin. If it takes Aronofsky’s utterly mad pagan ritual to wake up a complacent public fed on a sleep-inducing diet of numbskull comedies, faux superhero mythologies, and space operas – bring it on.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.