Spoilers for mother! below. We strongly suggest you see mother! before reading this, because as insane and potentially terrible as mother! may be, it’s worth the experience.
How does mother! even exist? Throughout maybe the first half of the film’s two-hour running time, I was rather enjoying its nifty uses of setting, cinematography, and images of organs emerging from toilet bowls. But even then, I couldn’t help but think that Aronofsky was about to Aronofsky this one up. And man, does he ever. When I realized what was going on in mother!, I burst out into laughter right there in the theater, and I was not alone. And, I assure you, nowhere in this film did Aronofsky intend for there to be humor (except, perhaps, the scene in which Michelle Pfieffer’s character drinks one too many spiked lemonades). A baby gets eaten! Kristen Wiig shows up! Guys, this movie is bonkers.
I have had great fun imagining mother!’s conception over the past 24 hours. Here’s what I came up with: Aronofsky met with an acid fried buddy from back in the day – perhaps an old chum from Harvard. The friend lit a joint, and Aronofsky partook. Then, as acid fried pot heads tend to do, the friend started spouting off ideas about the universe, space and religion. From a clear-headed standpoint, all of these ideas were half-baked, nonsensical and laughably stupid. However, Aronofsky, not used to this particularly potent strain of cannabis, latched on to the dumbest concept his friend vomited into existence that afternoon. “Hey,” his friend said, “You ever thought about doing a movie about God and Mother Nature in the Garden of Eden, but they are, like, hot actors that are married and Eden is just their shitty old house and it’s, like, a domestic horror film or something?” Now, most filmmakers would have shrugged and said “no” and then headed back to whatever high-minded project that they were looking to do next. Aronofsky, however, is no normal filmmaker. He looked at his friend, stunned, and said, “Wow, dumbass pothead friend, not only am I going to make a film like that, I’m going to spend $30 million of Paramount’s money and turn your divinely bad idea into a super stylish, body horror influenced, domestic horror film with the biggest movie star on the planet in the lead role.” And, never one to doubt himself, Aronofsky did just that. Personally, I don’t think there could be any other explanation for how mother! came into the world.
I absolutely loved the experience of viewing mother! for all kinds of reasons that Aronofsky did not intend. People were laughing maniacally in the theater when the film’s central allegory (a buzzword Aronofsky loves using every chance he gets) came into frame; Lawrence is mother earth, Bardem is god, and this whole song and dance has been a not-so-subtle retelling of the old testament.
One thing that Aronofsky cannot be faulted for is his ambition. Mother! is full of provocative images and cutting edge filmmaking. I firmly believe that cinema should primarily be concerned with image, mood and atmosphere and mother! has all three of those qualities in abundance. But the fact that all this cinematic trickery is in service of a parallel for the Garden of Eden, and a downright silly one at that, makes the film the most unintentionally hilarious movie of 2017. And that is Aronofsky in a nutshell. He makes absolutely ludicrous films that he has no idea are ludicrous. He sees himself as a David Lynch or a Jean-Luc Godard when in reality the level of camp and idiocy of his films more closely resemble the work of a Michael Bay or an Ed Wood. Requiem for a Dream is a mind-bending cinematic odyssey that is basically no more than a D.A.R.E. commercial totally devoid of nuance. The Fountain, Aronofsky’s take on magical realism, exposes all the stupidity of the magical realism philosophy (seriously, I hope that Gabriel Garcia Marquez never had to sit through that bastardization of the genre he pioneered). Aronofsky’s two films that work the best, The Wrestler and Black Swan, work because they are fixed upon an intriguing, and concise, concept: the psychological and physical tolls of performance. They are also elevated by iconic performances by Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman. But even those films are full of logical faults and maddening bits of superfluous sequencing.
Which brings us to mother!, the most “Aronofsky–esque” film Aronofsky has ever made. Every cinematic trick the director has ever employed is in full effect here. There are the preposterous close-ups used to emphasize Jennifer Lawrence’s… I don’t know. Nothing, really. Her feeling of entrapment I guess? There are hallucinatory sequences that characterize the house as a kind of living organism. The camera wobbles all over the place to purposefully disorient the viewer. There are the over the shoulder tracking shots, so we know we’re experiencing everything from Lawrence’s perspective. And then there’s the ending, with all the in-your-face shock value of a billion ass-to-ass dildo scenes combined. Aronofsky has been bragging about writing the script in five days, while working on a scrapped children’s film. That makes sense, because the final product is an amateurish, under-conceptualized, and child-like take on an art-horror mashup. The Observer’s Rex Reed nails it, saying: “Stealing ideas from Polanski, Fellini and Kubrick, he’s jerrybuilt an absurd Freudian nightmare that is more wet dream than bad dream, with the subtlety of a chainsaw.”
There is something so tragic about Darren Aronofsky. He so clearly wants to be considered amongst the great art film auteurs but carries so little of the necessary self-awareness and emotional intelligence required to make great art. He’s the “art bro.” The guy who watches the great films but can’t properly analyze them. Watching mother! had me pondering all kinds of cinematic Twilight Zone scenarios: “What if Fellini made Satyricon based on the Menippean satire’s Wikipedia entry as opposed to the actual Gaius Petronius manuscript?” “What if Jack Smith was crushing brewskis and banging coeds at frat houses instead of injecting hallucinogens at a bath houses when he made Flaming Creatures?” “What if Roman Polanski took all the subtlety and ponderousness out of Rosemary’s Baby and left the viewer with an obvious answer instead of a concept that would leave moviegoers pondering for decades?”
Aronofsky employs all the technical prowess of those icons but has none of the depth that would make his films meaningful. I’ll take this opportunity to compare him to the other auteur whose recent cinematic odyssey we’ve been pondering this summer: David Lynch. With Twin Peaks The Return, there are so many layers of conceptual ideology that we will be unpacking Lynch’s vision for eternity. He is a true artist and a true auteur. He has the intellect to flesh out a concept so thoroughly that he is able to lead the viewer in a certain direction and drive home a specific feeling that still leaves room for the viewer to analyze and ask questions. Aronofsky has the camera skills of Lynch but none of the philosophical intuition. Mother!, for all its stylistic flash and shocking imagery, can be summed up in one sentence once you figure out what it is: God and Mother Earth in the Garden of Eden as a domestic horror film. That’s it. Sure, you could come up with either a feminist or misogynist critique of the violence endured by Jennifer Lawrence’s Mother in the film, but there is never any demonstration that Aronofsky actually thought through any of this content himself. Like, he never stopped to ask himself, “What does it all mean?” And the great tragedy of mother! is that it’s packaged so confidently. You just know Aronofsky achieved exactly what he set out to achieve. How can a filmmaker of his stature be so confident in a movie that is so outrageously silly? It’s a little unnerving.
Another film that is easily called to mind, if we are being very generous to mother! in terms of cinematic comparisons, is Lars Von Trier’s polarizing but utterly magnificent 2009 film Antichrist. Like mother!, Antichrist is about a husband and a wife in a remote, suffocating house in the middle of the woods that also has both misogynist and feminist analyses attached to it. Antichrist leaves the viewer with a profound sense of dread and alienation. It leaves you striving to understand its brilliant visual cues and terrifying atmosphere and mood. And while mother! feels visceral at times, it winds up so blindly un-self aware and absurd that the unintentional humor quickly overshadows any sense of lingering dread you might feel. Aronofsnky isn’t nearly as sophisticated as Von Trier or Lynch. Beyond its ludicrous conceit, Aronofsky demonstrates that he had no idea what he was trying to say with mother!. And if he has no idea what he wants to say, then there is no way the audience can determine how it should make them feel. Other than amused. This is a problem.
The movie conjures the concepts of surrealism but totally overlooks the characteristics that make surrealism an important aspect of art history. In a typically glib and pretentious interview published by Vulture this week, Aronofsky says that mother!’s primary cinematic influence was Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist satire The Exterminating Angel. First of all, try and unpack this claim: not only does Aronofsky derive influence from Buñuel, he sees his film as being in that league. He says he doesn’t care whether or not viewers pick up on the parable of mother!. Does he honestly believe his film is actually that subtle? Not to mention the fact that he takes every opportunity possible to spell out his precious allegory in detail. For Buñuel, and specifically with The Exterminating Angel, surrealist imagery and story provides a searing indictment of the cruelty, greed and depravity of the ruling class during Franco’s fascist reign over Spain. When a government grows increasingly totalitarian, artists will turn toward dreams and fantasies to celebrate their inherent inalienable free thought that not even the most oppressive of governments can technically take away (not to mention, the symbols of surrealism become a sly way of critiquing a government that has banned dissenting criticism). There isn’t a hint of political subtext to mother! In a Trump-ian America rife for brutal artistic satire, Aronofsky gives us a surrealist film devoid of nuance or conceptual clarity. It’s a man and a woman and he’s God and she’s Mother Nature and shit gets weird and violent. Aronofsky blatantly misunderstands the functions of abstract art and surrealist cinema.
The other people who clearly have no idea what Aronofsky was trying to say with mother! were its stars. There isn’t one strong acting choice in this film. While David Lynch can render memorably quirky and fascinating performances out of virtually unknown actors, Aronofsky can’t get a believable note out of some of the most famous and talented actors in the world. Everything we love about Jennifer Lawrence, her poise, her humorous self-possession, her biting sense of humor, are all but erased in her performance as Mother. Aronofsky has reduced Lawrence, his now girlfriend, to the most stereotypical of victimized female horror characters: obsessed with an ignoring, macho, and simultaneously impotent man, incapable of asserting herself, and brutalized by neurosis. In Mother!, Mother Earth itself is reduced to “the last girl” of slasher film fare. It’s borderline offensive.
Meanwhile, Michelle Pfieffer plays the Biblical Eve as the cliché boundary-less woman. She doesn’t seem to know what to do in this film other than be pseudo-provocative and jarring. She even told The Hollywood Reporter that she didn’t know what to do with her character, beyond being “mischievous” (way to provide notes there, Darren!). Ed Harris is OK. He does his thing, playing Biblical Adam as equally banal and unnerving (Harris’s go-to character). But the most entertainingly awful performance comes from Javier Bardem as “Him,” and, by all reasonable interpretations of the film, God himself. Bardem plays Him with zero conviction. In fact, there are times when it seems that Bardem’s actual opinions of the material surface within the film itself. He seems downright disdainful. And this is a master actor. By the end, when Bardem brings mother to her ultimate demise and pulls that “love crytsal” from her chest, I swear I could see the relief on his face. The actors serve as nothing more than chess pieces for Aronofsky to slide across the screen and hope to God (pun intended) he figures out exactly what this all means in the process. He doesn’t even give them real names! This is a film totally lacking in conceptual clarity, and it’s honestly painful to watch actors that I love being forced to take writing and material this stupid with such seriousness. It’s a glorious failure of a film.
And yet, I would still highly recommend seeing mother! in the theater. There is something so magnificent about watching a mediocre artist aim so high and fail so spectacularly. It is, in a word, hilarious. Mother! offers the perverse thrill of watching a famous director fail to see how dumb his idea is, and it’s expounded by the fact that these unexpected reactions will surely bruise Aronofsky’s psyche in ways that he’d never comfortably admit.
I know that I’m being brutal here, but mother! is a deliriously bad film made by a filmmaker who sees himself as being an equal to your Lynch’s, Fellini’s and Kubrick’s, and yet offers a film that negates everything about the way he sees himself. There’s humor there, there’s tragedy there. We can admire Aronofsky’s ambition even as we skewer his product. Mother! will not leave you confounded by its layered subtext or provocative images. Instead, it will leave you confounded as to how a filmmaker who is actually taken seriously in this industry could put so much effort into an obviously bad, half-baked, and sub-intellectual idea. That is what is keeping me up at night pondering this film. And that will leave mother! as a fascinating curiosity in the history of cinema. So go see mother! now, and meditate on the aesthetics of artistic failure itself.