I was happy enough to do everything possible to respect Darren Aronofsky’s wishes that audiences know as little as possible about mother! before walking into the cinema. I did virtually zero research on the film beyond being aware of its existence, director, and lead actors. I didn’t watch any footage or trailers online, nor read any articles about it in the lead-up, and, whenever a trailer would play before another film I was attending, I would turn my gaze down and try to distract my mind by reading something unrelated. In truth, this is all fairly common practice for me when it comes to any film I know I’m going to see, but when a director I love and respect as much as Aronofsky demands it of me, you know I’m prepared to go above and beyond.
I’m happy to report that not only was my experience of mother! preserved, but it was absolutely worth the painful wait. mother! was both engrossing and difficult in the process of viewing, but it opened itself up to a wave of cathartic wonder in postliminary contemplation that still hasn’t left me. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to express my feelings about the film without delving into things that ought to remain hidden, so, if you’d prefer to know as little as possible before viewing, then just know this: I believe that, when the dust settles and time passes on, we’re going to be looking back on this film as not only one of the most defining parts of Aronofsky’s career but as one of the greatest films of this decade.
Explaining the narrative premise of mother! is a tricky endeavour, as the film operates on dreamlike principles that bleed back and forth between literal and metaphor. On the surface, it’s the fantastical story of a woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence) living in an idyllic home in the process of remodel and reconstruction with her husband, a famous poet known as Him (Javier Bardem). Their peaceful lives are interrupted, however, when strangers show up on their doorstep and wreak havoc on both their home and their relationship. The husband remains oddly welcoming to their obnoxious and aggravating guests, and things begin to spiral out of control into what can only be described as utter madness.
Underpinning all of this, however, is a sly biblical metaphor, tracing what is essentially the story of the Bible and Judeo-Christian faith from Genesis to Revelation (and a hint of Jewish apocrypha), Bardem playing God and Lawrence playing Mother Earth. This should come as no surprise to viewers familiar with Aronofsky’s captivation with his Jewish roots, especially infused with Jewish mysticism and apocryphal theology, which first explicitly manifested itself in his divisive 2014 blockbuster Noah. That film sparked controversy over apparent liberties taken with the biblical text paired with elements derived from the Book of Enoch, nevermind whether or not it was any good (I still stand by its value, though would concede that it’s by far the weakest of Aronofsky’s films). It may be that Noah was hamstrung by its massive budget and need to appeal to a broad audience to recoup funds, whereas mother! leaves the auteur wholly unrestrained, resulting in a film that’s far more personal, disconcerting, affecting, and satisfying.
One of the most striking parts of Aronofsky’s approach to mother! is the forced perspective of Mother Earth through the entire film. Aronofsky is extremely fond of behind-the-back tracking shots, used extensively in his films The Wrestler and Black Swan, so fond that he now decided to make an entire film based around them. The decision is initially a bit suffocating and uncomfortable, but as the film progresses the move pays off in spades. This perspective puts a hefty amount of weight on the shoulders of Lawrence to carry the film, but she proves herself more than up for the challenge, delivering the performance of her career, telegraphing every thought and feeling without a word of flimsy expository dialogue. Her forlorn and scorned Mother is incisive and shatters the soul. It’s a decidedly fresh approach to the material yielding stirring results.
Lawrence has plenty of support from intelligent filmmaking on Aronofsky’s part as well. mother!‘s sound design is bewitchingly good, conversations fading in and out as Mother drifts from room to room, leaving us feeling alienated and abandoned alongside her. There’s a strong sense of place afforded to us in the beginning of the film as Mother moves about the house, and Aronofsky uses that by robbing us of it as the film descends into chaos in the third act. This is about where I started figuring the film out on my initial viewing, as visual metaphors are suddenly hurled at the audience with increasing pace until an explosive finale where all is made clear. Aronofsky masterfully controls this chaos; the editing is frenetic, and wildly different scenes are strung together in a manner with the deliberate objective to cause confusion and disorientation with our movements through the elements remaining in a clear trajectory. The best comparison I can think of (and I want to note that this is not a horror film, despite what the film’s marketing campaign might indicate) is that of traveling through the rooms of the most exhilarating haunted house you can imagine. I was literally on the edge of my seat leaning forward for the entirety of the third act, and my heart is pounding out of my chest just thinking about it as I write this paragraph.
As a result, I haven’t stopped thinking about mother! since I watched it. It’s the rare sort of film that doesn’t merely blow me away but captivates me entirely and is to me a grand statement of what film ought to be. Aronofsky was afforded the opportunity to express what I believe to be a deeply personal part of himself, and while he (thankfully) avoids making that expression unintelligible as some more juvenile and inexperienced filmmakers are wont to do, he also refuses to take us by the hand. mother! is an audiovisual feast, visceral, impassioned, and deeply meaningful in transcendent ways, able to affect the viewer in mind, body, and soul if they’re willing to let it in.
It remains unclear to me exactly what message Aronofsky intended to send as well. Is this an indictment of God for His neglect of Earth for the sake of those that would destroy it, or is it a somber and level-headed testament to the depth of His love for humanity? Such questions can’t be answered, and there’s a breadth of symbols and flourishes within these 121 minutes that could be debated and discussed for years to come. And all of this further solidifies the film’s place as proof of the potential of the power of film and its place in high art. mother! isn’t merely a great film – it’s fast approaching cinematic perfection.