DIR/WRI: Darren Aronofsky • PRO: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Andrew Weisblum • DES: Philip Messina • MUS: Jóhann Jóhannsson • CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris
Sometimes the best marketing campaign is to not do one at all. At least, that’s what can be ascertained from mother!, the most surprising release of 2017 and officially completed literally a week before its premiere. Choosing to do the complete opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s ambivalently received Noah in terms of publicity has proven already more successful than the environmentalist blockbuster even before mother!’s public release. Much like the unexpected sleeper hit, 10 Cloverfield Lane, it seems sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all about a release and let the big names and the big mystery generate the intrigue by itself. Does that mean that the final result is any good?
Boy, is that the million dollar question. What begins as a reimagined setup to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (a fact made by the film’s none-too-subtle poster), soon spirals into an artistic fever dream that crosses the line between genius and lunacy more times than Stephen King on OxyContin. Aronofsky’s statement for its premiere at the Venice Film Festival isn’t just a pretentious roundabout description of the film – it’s a synopsis. And whether or not people will like mother!, it’s unquestionable that this is a horror movie of a different breed: one that confounds, infuriates and, finally, exhausts the viewer in its grim and maddening tone.
What is certainly more approachable is mother!’s first two acts. The eponymous and nameless mother (Jennifer Lawrence) has just recently moved to her new and isolated house with her husband (Javier Bardem), a writer suffering from a creative block. Before they have even finished unboxing and decorating their home, a strange man calls (Ed Harris), who stays with the couple despite his intentions becoming more and more unclear and insidious. It isn’t long until the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfieffer) comes to stay as well, and seems verbally hostile to Lawrence without explanation, determined that Lawrence conceives a child with Bardem. When the strangers’ stay becomes more indefinite over time, tensions rise and escalate until Lawrence feels no longer under control of either her relationship, her home, or her mind.
Aronofsky presents what essentially is an Ira Levin novel (who famously wrote Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) without its renowned satirical edge. The film begins and ends in an aggressively anxious atmosphere and never alternates for even a second. mother! has plenty of quiet, slow moments before the madness and its occasional use of jump scares feel like nothing more than a cheap means of maintaining the audiences’ investment. This is a slight complaint, however, as the sound and visual design more than compensates in creating an overwhelming sense of dread and uncertainty. The added touches of hearing the hollowness of the floorboards themselves make the home feel much bigger and emptier than we see, making the characters feel more isolated and letting the eeriness seep under our skin.
The problem, and possibly the most arresting sequence of the entire film, is its third act. Without spoiling any details, tolerance for what will undoubtedly become mother!’s reason for infamy will boil down to whether or not a particular person prefers ideas over storytelling. Things change quickly, with the former soon dominating the latter, and escalate to such a drastic extent that it warps into a surreal melting pot of anxieties and fears in the 21st century. Although the setup allows for the transition to occur naturally without breaking the film’s own logic, the ideas presented are unfocussed at best; cursorily overviewing a lot of serious issues that come and go like a house of horrors.
mother! begins thematically as a relationship disintegrating from the struggled balance between personal and professional life but it certainly doesn’t end there, even if it does try to connect the pieces. Part of what makes a horror work is that the subtext of the horror prods at a more deeply personal fear. Although I don’t doubt that Aronofsky does fear what he’s presented, it’s more likely that the people who watch mother! don’t exactly share his experience. So, returning to that question of whether or not the film is good, the answer is still ambivalent because the unorthodoxy of mother! defies a simplified response. What can be said is that watching it personally felt draining as the credits rolled and probably won’t be one I’ll return to again for a long time.
18 (See IFCO for details)
mother! is released 15th September 2017