Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 22, 2017

The ‘mother!’ of all bizarre movies

While watching “mother!” I felt like I was touring a museum that gradually ramps up the level of challenge for guests. Picture a gallery that begins with a selection of treasured Renaissance paintings, moves on to the Romantics and then plunges you into a dizzying array of abstract expressionism.

But the more I thought about the film, the more I realized writer and director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Noah”) never offers a glimpse of the real world. Rather, “mother!” is pure allegory.

It’s a simple one, too, although to grasp it, a viewer must resist all attempts to understand the film, or define it, in literal terms. One must watch “mother!” like one would read a poem built out of words that say one thing but mean another.

The allegory at the heart of “mother!” does have the lyricism of a well-written poem, and in a less abrasive film, it might actually impact viewers. But Aronofsky buries his message beneath his technique and bizarre scenes that have the potential to distance audiences from the film.

For example, after seeing a throng of frothing zealots consume a newborn baby, I doubt many viewers are going to be willing to dig through their shock and outrage to get to the film’s message.

“mother!” opens with a sun-bathed splash of serenity and harmony. In a scene that made me think of the accessibility of the first few rooms of my imaginary museum, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up one morning after her husband, Him (Javier Bardem), has left their bed.

They find each other on the porch of their home, a three-story Victorian poised in the middle of a field surrounded by trees. Him is a successful poet who’s struggling with writer’s block, but the house Mother rebuilt out of the ashes of a fire and her presence seem to give him peace.

As Mother attends to her husband’s every need, she begins to see strange things, including a beating heart within the walls of the house. At this point, I thought “mother!” might be an indictment of man’s long history of consigning women to domestic servitude, but I was grappling for meaning as I gazed at only part of the full picture.

Enter Man, who’s soon followed by Woman. Him welcomes these strangers into his home but Mother feels uncomfortable having them there. The male guest is a fan of her husband’s poetry and lavishes Him with praise, which feeds the writer’s ego.

In time, it becomes clear that neither Mother’s husband nor her guests are regarding her feelings about the situation, and that Women even distains Mother. She insists they leave, but no one listens.

This untenable situation spirals out of control when Man and Woman’s two sons arrive. At this point, I thought “mother!” was shifting from realism to metaphor, but I was late to the party.

Aronofsky had been building his allegory from the first frame. By the time Cain and Abel showed up, I’d started to realize he was drawing from stories in the Bible to shape his tale. But I still didn’t know what the movie was about.

Ninety minutes later, after a bombastic, fevered ending that left me wishing “mother!” was 30 minutes shorter, I’d reached a point of clarity: the film is an allegory for the raping of Earth by God’s followers.

As Aronofsky did with “Noah,” he’s taken scripture held sacred by Christians and turned it on its head to deliver a liberal cry for environmental preservation. “mother!” isn’t an indictment of domestic servitude, as I initially thought; it’s an impeachment of conservatives who view the Earth as a disposable resource and encourage each other to “step on the grass, shoot a deer and drill for oil” (a phrase with which Pastor John MacArthur once concluded a sermon about the end of the universe).

If you think my interpretation is bonkers, go see “mother!” and tell me what you come up with.

If you find the film too difficult to endure, don’t be hard on yourself; “mother!” was not meant to be an easy watch.

Why else did Aronofsky shoot the movie in tight close-ups on Lawrence, whose face fills the screen as she roams the house early on and then struggles with the chaos that follows the arrival of unwanted guests?

Aronofsky is a deliberate director; he does nothing by accident. His sympathies lie with Mother, so he anchors the film to her perspective. While I appreciate his reasons for doing this, there were times when I wanted the camera to pull back and provide some visual breathing room.

This issue, however, pales in comparison to the mind-numbing effect of two sequences during which the situation at the house spirals wildly out of control. These scenes push the boundaries of patience most viewers have with films that take them outside their comfort zone, partly because they last too long but also because Aronofsky lets the insanity go too far.

When S.W.A.T. broke into the house and started shooting guests, I checked out.

Aronofsky intended “mother!” to be provocative, as the scene involving the baby (which serves as a sickening portrait of Christian communion) suggests. But maybe a subtler approach wouldn’t have pushed viewers away.

But then “mother!” wouldn’t be an Aronofsky film. For all of its missteps, it’s a work by a filmmaker who was true to his passions and artistic impulses.

“mother!” also offers a bold allegory for our times. Too bad no one is going to be listening by the time that becomes clear.

Two out of four stars