Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem team with director Darren Aronofsky for a dark, supernatural and mystifying tale.
Some movies, and deservedly so, have had books written about them. There are movies which are worthy of reams and reams of paper obsessing over every detail imaginable; movies worthy of long ruminations on what any of it means (or doesn’t mean… or might mean). The latest film from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan), mother! begs for such a close, considered, extended textual analysis. The basic problem with the movie, however, is that it begs for such an analysis while never quite building a story that most will find worthy of the effort.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer, every moment in this dark, supernatural tale about a married couple (Lawrence and Bardem), their relationship, and the things/people that surround them, seems loaded with meaning. Every aspect forces the audience – any audience – to ask a myriad of questions. These questions are about the underlying meaning of the story as well as what is actually taking place.
To be sure, there are some answers in mother! and even when there aren’t, the asking of the questions feels relevant. It is, again, a movie that desperately wants itself to be dissected, and to be dissected from every possible angle.
At the core of everything is this connection between the husband and wife. The two live in solitude in a house undergoing repairs. Although they clearly love each other, even early on their conversations are strained. Bardem’s poet suffers from writer’s block, while Lawrence’s wife spends her time working on renovations. As things unspool, and with the arrival of Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters, the strain between the two becomes something more urgent; Lawrence’s character fears these new additions while Bardem’s welcomes them.
Unraveling the central relationship becomes one of the main focuses for the audience – Lawrence and Bardem are, quite clearly, not just playing this regular married set of characters. The characters are representations of something else. But what? Each little bit of the film, everything we see, must work into reading that relationship (in case it is not yet clear, no answers will be given here), and no matter how Aronofsky might mean mother! to be read – how he might intend for this couple to be seen – an audience will walk away with their own impressions.
While I hesitate to write that the house itself is also a character, it undoubtedly plays a pivotal part in the film. Partially renovated, the house is a work in progress and, like the movie, has secrets all its own. As with the rest of the movie, it can turn on a dime from beautiful to horrifying without ever stopping at a middle ground.
Beyond that, it is a stifling place despite its apparent size. The confined space instantly creates tension for the audience. That tension is combined with the growing animosity between the characters, and Aronofsky does admirable work teasing it out for as long as he does, but he is unable to maintain the pressure for the full film. Perhaps paradoxically, the more people from the outside world enter the home, the less cramped it feels.
As things devolve, it becomes all too clear that the film is going to end precisely where everyone has known it would. At a late stage in mother!, the leaps from one moment or idea to the next become too great and the film’s desire to hold onto its secrets becomes a hindrance rather than a virtue. While it may seem a feat to be able to predict the ending of a movie even if one isn’t sure what exactly the film means, Aronofsky’s work here makes that possible.
One thing that can be said unequivocally is that Lawrence, Bardem, Pfeiffer, and Harris are all magnetic in their performances, creating mesmerizing, bewildering characters. Each one has a light and dark side that shines through, and while Lawrence may offer a more sympathetic character than the rest, those in the audience will most definitely be drawn towards all four. Similarly, the creaks and groans of the house, the noises from another room, are all enough to make an audience want to know and see more.
That sort of enticement feels like a key element of mother! – it’s about drawing the audience into the story and creating a world and characters the audience desperately wants to understand better. However, even when the end credits roll, the audience will still have that desire.