Darren Aronofsky obviously has an eye for intriguing source material, but he’s still struggling to turn it into a film that can stand on its own.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
I can think of a lot of people who might appreciate Mother!, but I don’t know anyone who would love it.
There’s a strong disparity between what Darren Aronofsky’s new film wants to be and what it actually is. Even not liking it, I’m thrilled to see something this ambitious and, frankly, weird made with major talent by a production company as prominent as Paramount Pictures. It’s audacious, bizarre, and undoubtedly an incredibly personal work made by a major name in film. Still, that does not make it a good film.
Mother! opens with shots of a burned house slowly renewing and reassembling itself, room by room, as though a new breath of life has been blown into it. Javier Barden plays Him, a poet struggling with writer’s block in the years after the publication of a largely undescribed major work. He toils away in his upstairs sanctum under the loving eye of his wife, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). The couple live together in a country farmhouse that’s seemingly isolated from the remaining world, with only fields of tall grass and scattered trees in every direction. Each day Mother works to repair Him’s house, slowly rebuilt and resurrected from the charred remains of a house that once burned down on the same spot. All the while, Him toils away in his office attempting to recapture the inspiration that once inspired him to craft his previous beloved masterpiece.
The couple’s private paradise is interrupted one evening by an unexpected knock at their door, and they discover a lost man (Ed Harris) on their doorstep. Him invites the man to stay over Mother’s objections, and he is joined the next day by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), and eventually their two sons, also over Mother’s objections. Him is delighted by their guests who all seem thrilled to learn he’s the poet they’ve admired for years, but Mother is disquieted (especially by Pfeiffer’s Woman) as they help themselves to the house’s amenities without asking and steal away to Him’s private office sanctuary, despite numerous reminders that they’re not to enter the room unescorted.
Sound weird? You’re not thinking weird enough. Details about Mother! were kept under close guard until the film’s first trailer dropped, revealing the project as a horror film. But anyone who sees Mother! after seeing 2017’s fantastic slate of horror films such as Get Out, It Comes at Night, and It, will be sorely disappointed by Aronofsky’s film. Mother! features a disquieting furnace in the house’s basement, and an unnerving performance by Pfeiffer whose unearned familiarity with Mother makes your skin crawl, but the film is never approaches real scares until it goes fully apocalyptic in the final act. By that point, anyone who bought a ticket hoping for scares has already left the theater. Is Mother! disturbing, disquieting, and creepy? Certainly. But not scary. Sometimes you just need a hook to get people into the theater, and that’s what Mother!’s marketing campaign is. The enigmatically oblique character names and evasive premise seem more like something out of a student film, and, if you feel that way, you’re much closer to the truth.
It’s impossible to discuss the film in any meaningful way without revealing its plot, so unfortunately that’s what I’ll be doing here, but don’t let that dissuade you. You’re going to be familiar with this story whether you’ve seen this film or not. It’s literally thousands of years old.
Again: Spoilers ahead.
If you haven’t caught the drift yet, let’s get direct. The film’s plot is entirely a biblical allegory with Javier Bardem’s Him as God, his famous poetic work as the Old Testament, and Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as Adam and Eve. If you’ve spent any time in a church, you can easily imagine what happens during their unescorted visits to Him’s private office and the tragic results when their sons arrive at the house. The problem is that, once you’ve grasped the key to the film’s enigmatic events, there’s not much left to the project. The characters are left to play out a story that the audience already knows over the course of two slogging hours, with not much left to ponder besides the symbolic intent of each scene. I found myself plotting out vast sections of the film in advance, and each time I was disappointed to be correct.
And that’s extremely frustrating. There’s a fascinating question at the heart of the film: if Abrahamic religion reveres God as a father figure, and calls Christ the Son of God, then what does that imply for a maternal figure? Why is she seemingly excluded from the Judeo-Christian story? There’s certainly interesting cultural and societal questions to investigate around that question, but the film isn’t particularly interested in any of them. I remember sitting through high school English classes discussing text analysis where my teacher insisted that there was no single, magical key that unlocked a poem/story/film, and a student needed only to find one to understand a work in its entirety. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell that to Darren Aronofsky. As with many films marked by a major twist, once you’ve seen the solution, the film can’t stand on its own.
Science fiction editors apparently have a term for the stories that inevitably cross their desks every week where a lone male and female astronaut named Adam and Eve land on an isolated new planet and play out the biblical narrative: a shaggy god story. It seems Darren Aronofsky somehow convinced Paramount Pictures to produce one for $30 Million dollars.
But can you both dislike a film and give everyone involved a pass? I’m still thrilled that a major studio was willing to finance this project, and that everyone involved wanted to make it. All of the actors acquit themselves well, especially Michelle Pfeiffer who’s finally working again after a multi-year hiatus and should expect to get a lot of interested calls from producers after they see her in Mother!. It’s also fun to see Jennifer Lawrence get weird after a decade propping up summer tentpoles and Oscar bait. Unfortunately, enthusiasm alone isn’t enough to save a film. If it were, then Battlefield Earth would be the greatest film ever made.
There are plenty of interesting questions that Aronofsky toys with, but the film’s need to keep its characters undefined and functioning as symbols undermines them. Mother!’s most interesting interpretation relies on Aronofsky himself, and what he wants to say about life as an artist who creates for a living. Is such a person doomed to constantly abandon the ones who love them in favor of exterior adoration? Is such a relationship doomed to be parasitic?
Again, these aren’t questions that Aronofsky doesn’t seem interested in investigating. Both Mother! and Aronofsky’s last film, Noah, show that the director has an interest in mining the Bible for stories, but he’s going to have to do more to translate that interest into something that works onscreen. Mother! is too narrowly plotted towards its central narrative to bother with what’s interesting. Some of our best art comes from artists taking classic stories and revisiting them in new ways, uncovering new viewpoints and ideas, but that’s an opportunity that Mother! blatantly misses. Aronofsky is too busy spoon-feeding the audience a story they already know to cover new ground. I almost wish I’d failed to notice the central biblical allegory. Without it the film wouldn’t have made any sense, but at least it might not have been so rote.