Film Review: mother!

by Chris Piper on September 15, 2017

If a stranger knocks at your front door…

Jennifer Lawrence’s Mother struggles with hostess duties as Javier Bardem’s poet entertains.

Standing before an unpainted bedroom wall, a young and thoroughly domesticated woman ponders which shade of eggshell will look just so. She mixes up a tester, applies a strip, and steps back to regard her work. Elsewhere an older man inhabits his writing study, conjuring magic onto the page and thence to his readers. Later the two will enjoy her hearty meal, and settle into reading by the fire.

But something isn’t right. A sound, or maybe a feeling, forces the woman to cock her ear. She moves as quietly as possible, propelled by a feeling she can’t explain, to peek in on the man. He isn’t writing. He’s just sitting, waiting, watching. Something isn’t right.

Such is the ominous atmosphere of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film mother!, which only partly succeeds, through the use of the horror genre overlaid with biblical themes, at offering a portrait of female anxiety.

The film opens with a puzzling series of time-lapse sequences in which rooms seemingly charred in a fire become freshly painted, darkened walls instantly bloom with color, and debris-strewn floors become clean and newly finished, ending with a woman sleeping in a predawn bedroom. The woman reaches for her mate, and, not feeling him, sits up and with an expression of confusion and unease, mutters “babe?”

Questions and doubt and unease abound in the woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and known only as Mother. She is competent but not comfortable as she moves through the house ever more fretfully looking for Him (also nameless), played by Javier Bardem.

As she searches through room after room, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera stays handheld, and close to her barely clothed body, luxuriating in her youth. Yet she doesn’t pad with the steps of someone at ease or in command. She’s pensive, hesitant in her own home, and quite tentative. Finally, He startles her on the porch, and they embrace. All seems well again. But the lingering sense that something isn’t right remains on her face, and in the way a physical and emotional distance persists around them.  

Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men was so wrenching, so deeply unsettling that it’s impossible to see his face here and not feel a faint tingle of the explosive terror from that film. We see his deeply lined older face in close context with her much younger, smoother but more troubled one. The tension between them seems to strengthen as they go about their day, and we learn that he’s a writer suffering through a block, and she’s trying to keep him comfortable until a breakthrough happens.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

Aronofsky expertly deploys the cinematic techniques and tropes of a horror film to build a tense and pensive atmosphere. Lawrence’s face is tightly framed, and we follow her, sometimes barely able to see more than her eyes through the house’s dark halls. Later that day Bardem’s character answers a knock on the door, and in comes Ed Harris, known only as Man, with a shifting story and shiftier face. In short order he is followed first by his wife, played by scene-stealing Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), and then their two sons, played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson. Harris’s Man is a fan of Bardem’s poet, and dying, and wants a visit, and he has dragged his family and their ongoing disputes through the front door. Though not voicing any concerns, Mother’s face maps an increasing amount of discomfort. Shouldn’t she feel justified in not agreeing to these visitors? Why should they bring their problems here? Can’t her husband just ask them to leave? She’s torn between politeness and a sense that her husband could benefit from the attention, and a growing sense that these visitors are after something else.

Harris, always solid, plays his character with a nefariousness that can’t quite be concealed, and Pfieffer is terrific as a retired vamp for whom age has brought comfort instead of distress. Within minutes she has Mother following her around the house, and going to a number of forbidden rooms as well as forbidden marital areas. After barging into their bedroom, the Woman surveys it, looks Mother over, and within minutes has concluded that the couple are not having sex. Mother is beside herself with rage, but cannot bring herself to confront the Woman. “Look at you,” Pfeiffer’s Woman observes, “if he’s not all over you then it’s because of his age or….” It’s the spark that sets the rest of the film ablaze.

That night, simmering resentments boil over into a heated argument, then to passionate lovemaking, and the next morning … boom … Mother is pregnant, and the parallels between mother! and the 1968 Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby become obvious.

But where Mia Farrow gave a portrait of paranoia, and Polanski used the horror film genre to explore the dangers of rejecting family, Aronofsky opts instead to explore a certain kind of anxiety experienced by a certain kind of woman desperate to live a certain kind of longed-for but impossible life. It’s an anxiety that can be placed in the very uncomfortable place of needing control, and knowing that too much control can be suffocating. Lawrence uses very little dialog and mostly her face and body language to show us how much she wants to control the man who she knows will wither, or, perhaps, explode under that very type of control.

Had Aronofsky offered us a film that explores this fascinating theme with some subtlety and ambiguity, mother!, could have ranked as one of the year’s great films. Sadly, he  chooses to radically change gears and spend the rest of the film caught between playing out the story of Mother and Him and exploding that story into an overwrought tale of the dangers of artistic inspiration, heavily fortified with biblical overtones. Granted, we are treated to some truly intense imagery, and to Kristen Wiig as Herald, a literary agent who goes to the most extreme ends to protect her talent. And Aronofsky does excel at being able to introduce characters in extremely stressful situations trying desperately to maintain control, but the lack of control of the film’s second half mostly undoes the impressive restraint and control of its first half.   

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mother! opens today in Bay Area theaters.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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