When you have a film that suggests everything, it threatens to be about nothing. And that’s where mother! finds itself teetering: between illumination and emptiness, thoughtfulness and hollowness. Whatever you hold onto as the film’s key allegory – and make no mistake, there are numerous straws to pull – will likely determine how successful you find Darren Aronofsky’s new film. Yet it’s Aronofsky’s sociopathic indifference to approval that makes mother! so profoundly unsettling. “Bitter” and “dark” and “joyless” and “depressing” – are Aronofsky’s films ever otherwise described? Now consider the filmmaker at his most toxically nihilistic; mother! is your product.
What fire dies when you feed it? mother! opens with the charred visage of a woman before we’re introduced to Jennifer Lawrence, credited as Mother, startled awake as she roams our setting. In this proverbial Eden, she moves from room to room in the large estate as we get a sense of the geography. Stepping outside we find ourselves isolated in a field of grass with not so much as a path leading to the country home. We’re introduced to Him (Javier Bardem), an artist. A poet. We learn that he’s of considerable stature though is encumbered by writer’s block. While he struggles, she supports him emotionally, domestically, and creatively; a lover, mother, and muse.
Visitors arrive, first Man (Ed Harris) and then his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). They impede on the privacy of their hosts, lavishing Bardem with praise (they are admirers of his work) while curtly ignoring and indignantly ridiculing Lawrence. Anxieties build, as Lawrence’s protests and unhappiness go unheard. What you do hear is an immersive and commanding sound design: the knock on the door, the clink of ice against glass, a smoke detector’s overwhelming siren. The film’s anxieties mount like a Shirley Jackson short story, where every answered question lends itself to more doubts and uncertainties.
What does it all mean? And does it matter? A cursory reading suggests a retelling of the Bible, littered with covert modulations on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the Genesis flood narrative. Or consider the film as a Buñuelian treatise on climate change, the symptoms of Lawrence’s breakdown a result of the toxic and polluting figures that respond to her cries with indifference. Or perhaps a condemnation of the critical community that lambasted Aronofsky’s previous film, Noah, whereby tortured creator sees his creation torn apart by the masses before being quite literally murdered by his detractors. Or consider the more obvious: a declaration on man’s misogynistic tendencies to siphon any and all vitality from women. Or synthesize all these potential readings into some amalgamation and you may be close to getting to the heart of mother!.
But it’s my second question about whether knowing matters at all. The thing is that mother! is more successful in how it goes about its concerns as opposed to what it’s about. This speaks to Aronofsky’s filmmaking in general, which is defined by its confrontational, oft-times discomforting qualities. There’s no room for subtleties in his work. Requiem for a Dream has no gray area. The trajectory of his characters in The Wrestler and Black Swan are in a constant downward spiral. But the virtuosity of his filmmaking, a kind of sensibility that combines cinema vérité with a distinct spiritual omnipresence, gives the auteur a distinct voice. He’s a filmmaker that is capable of projecting anxious gestures from the movement of his camera. The way he spirals around his characters suggests an apprehension that’s unspoken but felt. It’s going to be difficult for viewers to separate the sensationalist and violent qualities of mother! from the formalism of Aronofsky’s filmmaking. However uneasy or discomforting mother! may be thematically, Aronofsky’s formal bravura has reached an apex. And given the formal rigor of his previous films, it is a notable achievement.