I want to preface this review with one thing: you are better off seeing mother! without knowing anything else about it. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read the Wikipedia article. Don’t even keep reading this review, unless you want some of the drama, mystery, and pure misery of Darren Aronofsky’s newest movie spoiled. That being said, let’s get into it!
If you’re a fan of Aronofsky’s other films, you’ll probably enjoy mother!, at the very least for the unique and thought provoking nature of it. But the key word in that sentence is definitely “provoking,” because this movie attacked me from multiple angles. The only thing I could utter by the end of it was “well, that was unnerving.” Quite frankly, that’s the understatement of the year.
First things first. mother! is about a husband and wife (Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence) who welcome strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) into their home, causing unexpected chaos. It’s also about so much more than that.
Watching mother! made my skin crawl, but not in the traditional way of other scary movies. Aronofsky uses a massive amount of closeup facial shots, especially of Jennifer Lawrence. It creates a sense that the movie is invading your personal space at all times, while doing an excellent job of showing the audience Lawrence’s anguish, frustration, and eventual rage. Other subtle tricks include not naming any of the characters, which I didn’t even notice until about halfway through. There’s also a complete lack of musical score, making every scene feel much more real, instead of just another over-produced movie scene.
There are also strange omissions that trick your subconscious, such as people coming and going from the house (including a trip to the hospital at one point), but the movie has no cars. In the single exterior shot of the house, there are no cars. No driveway. No roads. Nothing. Additionally, the movie plays with an inconsistent timeline. At first, it feels like the movie is set sometime in the past, say the 50s or 60s. The house has a single corded phone and Bardem’s character, a writer, uses pen and paper instead of a laptop. Or even a typewriter. And then, suddenly, Ed Harris’s character pulls out a smartphone to show off pictures of his sons, throwing the audience for a unexpected loop.
They are subtle details, but they work much like Stanley Kubrick’s misdirection tricks did in The Shining — creating a painful sense of tension and confusion that doesn’t appear to have a source, from the viewer’s point of view.
As the movie reaches its climax, a very pregnant mother (Lawrence) is once again in bombarded by unwanted house guests, who have come to view Him (Bardem) as some sort of deity in the wake of a moving new piece of writing. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but be sure to have a strong stomach before watching it. I would later liken it to some sort of gory disaster that you can’t turn away from, but are simultaneously repulsed by.
The ending of the movie offers little explanation for the two hours that preceded it. The most obvious metaphors being thrown around are that mother is representative of Mother Earth, and Man and Woman (Harris and Pfeiffer) represent mankind, who constantly ruin the beautiful world they have been graciously given.
Even more obvious is the religious overtones (there’s a reason Bardem’s “Him” is the only character name given capitalization in the credits, and also why the film’s title begins with a lower-case m). In this interpretation, mother! is a re-telling of Adam and Eve, with Bardem playing God, Harris and Pfeiffer playing the bible’s first humans (complete with Cain and Abel and subtle rib injury before Eve makes her appearance), and Lawrence being the symbolic Garden of Eden. There’s even a symbolic Forbidden Fruit and somewhat of a divine birth, followed by much sacrifice.
Another more liberal take on the movie is that it’s about sexism, in that mother’s efforts are never enough for her husband. She lives to serve him, repairing his entire house while preparing home-cooked meals, only to be forced to be cordial with rude and pushy unexpected guests. As Him’s writing becomes adored, the only thing that matters to him is his ego and fandom. He continues to ignore his wife’s pleas for help, driving her into complete madness (which is certainly justified given the events of the last third of the film).
I’ve spent almost 700 words attempting to review this movie, and I’m still stuck on one question: is mother! a good movie? I honestly don’t know. I enjoyed it because of how non-traditional the narrative is. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, so it gets huge points for originality. It also contains some beautiful cinematography and amazing performances, especially from the likes of Lawrence and Pfeiffer (who could easily win awards for role).
On the other hand, a bunch of scenes in the hectic climax didn’t work for me. Not because they were offensive or gory (although they are), but because they didn’t fit the rest of the movie. In a movie that doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation, some scenes defied even the most generous definition of “suspension of reality.” As I looked around the web at what other people thought of mother!, I saw that opinions are on both ends of the scale. Some loved it. Some despised it, with one critic even calling it “the worst movie of the century.” My take is definitely somewhere between those two polar opposites.