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Niko Tavernise/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Film Review: mother!

23 September 2017 Daniel Pateman

Aronofsky’s latest piece of provocation is an intense genre mash-up. Part horror film, part art-house movie, it comments on humanity’s capacity for both creation and wanton destruction. Enjoy the ride, but pack a sick bag.

If this film were summed up via emoji, it might appear thus: a ubiquitous smiley, a line of tense yellow faces with clammy blue brows, a smattering of wide grins, five angsty scream-faces and then a tornado. mother! is harder to encapsulate in words, but its ambiguity and openness to interpretation prove part of its appeal.

A brief introductory sequence helps to calibrate audience expectations, making clear that what follows will be no pure realist movie, even if it does deal obliquely with social concerns. It owes as much to the Guillermo del Toro school of filmmaking as it does to the extremes of Lars Von Trier or the horror of Roman Polanski, making frequent forays into fantasy and allegory. The film begins with the figures of ‘mother’ and ‘him’, as they are anonymously known; a childless couple, ostensibly happy though strangely distant. While he struggles to find the inspiration to write, she dedicates her creative energies to redecorating their dilapidated home. Their existence appears quite content, until two strangers arrive and worm their way into their lives – their presence threatening to expose hidden resentments and neuroses. At that point, things become far too weird for a plot synopsis.


Jennifer Lawrence in mother! Photo: Niko Tavernise/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘mother’ acts as the pivot of the film. Playing the supportive, inoffensive, often slighted partner of ‘him’ (Javier Bardem), we share her unease as the film spirals out of control. The roving hand-held camera is never far away, positioning us in her shoes and mirroring her frantic movements. As with Aronofsky’s Black Swan, we are drawn into the protagonist’s subjective headspace of disorientation and confusion, which proves an intoxicating and engaging experience. ‘Mother’ continually protests against the increasing indignities, but with a voice so tremulous and small it is unheard amidst a growing maelstrom of unreasonableness. Lawrence’s portrayal evokes the character of Alice from the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: an isolated and bemused figure in an increasingly threatening landscape.


Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother! Photo: Niko Tavernise/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Despite a mounting sense of apprehension, the film nonetheless contains deft moments of humour. These come largely from the inspired and surprising casting. Michelle Pfeiffer is perfect as Ed Harris’s partner, ‘woman’. Mischievous, sensual and self-assured, her presence works to slowly undermine Lawrence’s fragile façade and tease out her self-doubts. Her brazen air and child-like lack of mental filter provides amusement in a role that is also gently threatening. As the film descends into free-fall, there are some idiosyncratic cameo appearances. Actors spill onscreen, seemingly stumbling in from different movies, adding to the surreal momentum and playing deliciously against-type parts.

As the film reaches its peak, Aronofsky the provocateur appears, determined to knock Lars Von Trier from his demented perch as King of Controversy. Part sickening, misogynistic and absurd, the visceral horror would be greater if the film wasn’t acting as an allegory of some kind; by this point it’s clear what we are seeing should not be taken literally. But, having been carried along on mother!’s wave of delirium, these final scenes linger longest in the mind.


Jennifer Lawrence in mother! Screenshot/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

So what is this giddy psychodrama about? It hints that, in our highly networked age, we can no longer keep the outside world from pouring in; the boundary between public and private worlds is breaking down. It could also be an extreme evocation of the figure of the celebrity as public property. However the general consensus is that the film is an allegorical depiction of man’s continued denigration of the earth, of Mother Nature. Perhaps most radically of all, it implies a historically and culturally persistent misogyny. Woman gives all, the film seems to say, and man takes all, in an on-going cycle.
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