No matter what you think of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal, go-for-broke horror / black comedy / allegory / surrealist exercise / cinematic experience, you certainly can’t say that Aronofsky is phoning anything in. A director who’s almost always plunged into excess and operatic style touches with glee and abandon (the sparse, stripped-down The Wrestler aside), mother! is pure Aronofsky: stylish, mind-bending, impeccably executed, and utterly, 100% unique.
None of which is to say that you’ll necessarily like this movie, to be fair. Really, mother!’s mixed reception is completely understandable, even without taking into account the film’s completely misleading and inaccurate marketing campaign. This is a film that defies easy categorization, and one that starts off as grounded, strange drama before escalating to madness and operatic allegory without ever looking back. It’s a film that’s best appreciated as an experience, taking it all in as one would a poem, and trying to interpret it all, rather than embracing it on anything close to a literal level. And that’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable with – and that goes double if you’re expecting a conventional horror film here.
But for those who are open to what Aronofsky is doing, mother! is gloriously insane and gleefully anarchic – a reminder of what cinema and film can do that no other medium can do. Even in the early going, Aronofsky’s control of staging and mood is impeccable, but as the film hits its astonishing, chaotic final act, it becomes something wholly else: wild, careening, ambitious, surreal, terrifying, exciting, and overwhelming. And, most importantly, in Aronofsky’s hands, it becomes something captivating and unforgettable – a surreal nightmare turned real, an escalating portrait of madness, mania, and selfishness.
Much has been made out of the question of what mother! “means,” which is simultaneously a compelling question and a fully inadequate way to describe what makes the film great. Yes, there’s no denying that in many ways, the film is a religious allegory, one concerned with how our relationship with the divine is still eternally selfish and driven by our own needs; that the film deals with climate change and the way we abuse the gifts of nature is all a part of that. And yet, at the same time, couldn’t it all be a scathing look at the life of celebrities and public figures, and the difficulty in drawing a line between private and public? Or couldn’t it be a portrait of codependent relationships and what happens when you invest everything in someone else and have nothing left of your own? To which I’d say: yes, and yes! Or maybe no! So much of the joy of the film comes from the way its meaning, like so much art, is in the eye of the beholder. mother! won’t hold your hand, it won’t give you a guide; it’s up to you to decide what it means to you, and really, I’ve yet to hear a take that didn’t resonate with me.
But even though mother! all but demands you spin time unpacking and understanding it, doing so doesn’t get me any closer to unpacking the experience of watching this movie, and conveying the astonishing impact it has on a viewer. It doesn’t capture Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible performance as she reacts with confusion, bewilderment, unease, and horror at the unfolding insanity around her, nor does it capture the way Javier Bardem can embody both wrath and beneficence perfectly. It doesn’t come close to giving you a sense of the film’s gloriously dark sense of humor, as scenes constantly go in unexpected directions. (The brilliant crew at The Next Picture Show podcast did an amazing episode about the way the film evokes the work of Luis Buñuel, focusing on The Exterminating Angel; I can’t recommend it enough.) It doesn’t give you a sense of the unease as people reveal their darkest sides, as brotherly squabbles turn bloody, or movements of love become all out battles to the death. And most of all, nothing I can write can explain the excitement, uncertainty, and sheer wildness of the film’s final act, which is one of the boldest, gutsiest, and most astonishing sequences I’ve seen in years.
mother! isn’t for all tastes, pure and simple; as my friend Adam said, I bet a lot of CinemaScore people would have gone lower than F if allowed. But I’m so glad it exists; at a point where it feels like almost every movie is a reboot, a sequel, or a franchise, mother! is defiantly unique – a middle finger to easily quantifiable films and a love letter to what cinema can accomplish. No, it’s not for everyone, and that’s what makes it great. Because if it’s for you, trust me, you’re in for an experience you will never forget, and a film that helps remind you of why you fell in love with film in the first place.