Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Cry to the Silent Heavens: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

Note: This review contains spoilers for Mother! 

Mother! must have been as painful to make as it is to experience. It’s a brutal expression of faith, misanthropy, and the cycle of creation and destruction, as abstract as it is harrowing. It’s a film that both invites and scorns interpretation, using its broad metaphor and overt symbolism in ways that feel extremely personal. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a cinema setting. It terrified me.

Jennifer Lawrence is “Mother,” and Javier Bardem is “Him.” He struggles to write while she labours to meticulously rebuild the house they share, his childhood home, which was lost in a fire. They are alone in this house in the middle of an endless wilderness – until a houseguest (Ed Harris) drops by, eventually bringing his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) with him. Bardem invites them to stay. They encroach, ever more boldly, upon their hostess’s patience and hospitality, while the film builds aggressively towards a shocking, shattering climax. This is not reality. This is a living nightmare, a parable of impotence and fear and ego, whose scope expands and contracts sickeningly from the incredibly personal to the vast and unknowable.

Audiences unaccustomed to Darren Aronofsky’s work – or to avant-garde cinema in general – will likely hate this film. I don’t blame them; it’s certainly hateful. Lawrence gives an intense performance in a role that rarely lets her stray from the frame, keeping us focused and unblinking on her pain, her terror, and her lack of control. The quiet moments of solace, of what seem to be genuine human connection, are ripped away from her (and us) as quickly as they are given. The film contains some truly shocking imagery, and delves into depictions of misogyny and cruelty with unflinching confidence. Aronofsky seems to be grappling with real and powerful demons in his execution of these themes, but general audiences won’t see that. They’ll see a persecuted heroine, beset by callous disregard, trapped in a feverish fantasy that won’t let her move, or speak, or scream. They’ll see a nightmare, and they’ll yearn for it to be over.

That nightmare feels ripped from the id of the director himself. His struggle with cinematic creation may well mimic that of his “poet” avatar, whose adoring masses flock to attend his every word, even though he can barely summon them to begin with. His struggle with Christian faith may be mirrored in the characters – the Creator (Bardem), the Mother (Lawrence), Adam & Eve (Harris and Pfeiffer), Cain & Abel (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), and of course, the sacrificed son – who enact a cyclical ritual of creation and destruction that, while very much on the nose, may depict a deeper crisis of faith than the surface metaphor suggests. His relationship to his female lead, who is made to give and give until she has nothing left at all, may be a strange and disturbing confessional regarding Aronofsky’s real-life relationship with Lawrence (especially given the difference in age between her and Bardem). There may even be an environmental message at play, concerning the clash between the creations of man and the nature they inhabit, which must be swept clean – purified by fire – when their hubris gets the better of them. Mother! is a tangled web of metaphor and meaning, blatant and personal, whose very title seems to be a cry aimed at the silent heavens.

The filmmaking with which Aronofsky realizes these primal, instinctive anxieties and fears is masterful. The house is intimately shot, making us as familiar with its distinct geographic locales as the people who live there – which makes it all the more upsetting when we see how those locations are corrupted and despoiled. The sound design evokes classic horror fare in its use of silence, which makes small, innocuous sounds seem deafening and frightening. (The final act, in all its thunder and fury, helps the nearly silent finale hit home that much harder.) The actors give amazing performances, bringing painful, passionate humanity to their characters, which can sometimes seem like little more than paper representations, instead of people. I would never say that Mother! is a bad film – but it’s a difficult one to recommend.

It amazes me that such a film was given a wide North American release, which means that many unsuspecting theatregoers will walk in on the strength of the cast, having such precious little idea of what they’re in for. I hope that, like me, those people are shaken from the reverie of their lives, and made to question the fabric of their work and their relationships and their own feelings, the way Aronofsky does. It’s not pleasant . . . but it feels vital, and true, and inevitable.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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