'Mother!' film review: The most divisive film of 2017
Behold "Mother!" (opening in theaters Sept. 15), the latest offering from acclaimed writer-director Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream," "Black Swan"). This unnerving drama may be many things to many people, but there is one ironclad certainty: "Mother!" will be the most divisive film of 2017.
In short: A struggling poet (Javier Bardem) and his young wife's (Jennifer Lawrence) quiet life in their remote house is disturbed when uninvited guests begin to arrive. Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson and Kristen Wiig also star.
Aronofsky has outdone himself - he's managed to craft a psychological horror flick that makes "Requiem" seem uplifting and "Pi" look quaint. When even his most straightforward narrative has an ending that is open to interpretation ("The Wrestler"), Aronofsky has ambitiously swung for the fences with an esoteric (to put it mildly) film that leaves the audience dazed. When the credits finally roll, the first and perhaps only question that comes to mind: "what the **** did I just watch?"
On its face, "Mother!" is a plotless string of increasingly unsettling WTF moments haphazardly strung together in a manner that pointedly dares audiences to walk out of the cinema. It's as if Aronofsky is intentionally trying to alienate (if not outright offend) the audience - first by crafting an ethereal mystery that seems to wander aimlessly, then by ratcheting up the confusion with increasingly brutal and insane imagery.
Trying to make sense of "Mother!" in a literal sense is a frustrating endeavor: Aronofsky makes little effort to spell out exactly what is going on at any point of the film. Everything seems random and disjointed - jarring plot points suddenly seem to appear from out of nowhere and abruptly end without obvious resolution. The erratic time jumps and the fact that characters abruptly appear and disappear don't make the film any easier to digest. While tracking the relatively basic plot points is not too hard, "Mother!" often begs the question "why is any of this happening?!"
Only adding to the confusion is Aronofsky's choice to ground the film in Lawrence's character. Almost the entire film is presented from her point-of-view or tightly locked in on her by way of close ups. Much of the shoots are tightly framed around her face, exposing her every nuanced and frantic reaction - especially effective as her psychological condition rapidly spirals downward. The audience shares in her utter bewilderment as every character around her seemingly ignores her pleas for answers.
If it wasn't difficult enough that Aronofsky is stingy with definitive answers and the protagonist may be slowly losing her mind - the film itself has a dreamlike atmosphere that permeates every shot. The couple's house is tactile and richly defined - but everything outside of the house has an eerie, ill-defined vagueness. It is clear that this particular world looks and feels like our world - but there is something about it that is off. This succeeds in keeping the audience constantly off balance.
All that said, any claim that this film "does not make sense" is inaccurate. While "Mother!" does not make much sense on a literal read (its plot points do not follow a traditional narrative structure), this is not a film meant for literal interpretation. Everything in the film is a figurative representation of stories many people are already probably familiar with - and the key to unlocking "Mother!" comes in one of the very last lines of dialogue and requires some amount of literary awareness for the context to make any sense. With this pivotal revelation, the entirely of "Mother!" snaps into focus - and the reward makes sense of the apparent nonsense.
Then the question becomes, does "Mother!" justify its puzzling structure and layered/arcane story elements - or does Aronofsky try to pull a lazy "fast one" to rationalize the film's disturbing third act? Movies that wholly rely on some cheap, last-minute twist are lazy - but films that are cracked by a key piece of missing information are made whole/satisfying in the end. "Mother!" demands a second viewing when it becomes clear who the characters represent, which in turn further helps explain some of their confusing character decisions. Aronofsky crafted a film that is elementally terrifying in tone and content within a story that is (at its core) ancient and familiar. "Mother!" is an ambitious and abstract work infused with a disturbing menace that shocks utterly at face value and is only made even more troubling given its subtext.
Final verdict: "Mother!" is not for the casual moviegoer - the extreme and grotesque violence of the third act cannot be overstated enough. That said, it is one of the essential "must see" films of 2017. This visceral, unsettling waking nightmare takes time to process and deserves credit for its bold storytelling and visionary filmmaking.
"Mother!" opens in theaters Sept. 15. This dramatic mystery has a running time of 121 minutes and is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.