On the surface, Mother! Is yet another example of a director aiding and abetting their own egomania with an anti-egomaniacal screed, a peculiar form of self-appreciation doled out by a director happy to explore the myriad ways in which directors are oppressive dictators at heart. This would mark Mother! as the latest bastard child of Hitchcock’s self-critiques in Rear Window and Vertigo and Hollywood’s extraordinary propensity to control the terms of anti-Hollywood filmmaking by making films which mock itself. But, to give credit where credit is due, the thoroughly undigestible Mother! erodes even that auto-critical safe harbor. Many films – far too many in the 21st century – retreat into easy mockery and adolescent self-reflexivity, the sort of trivializing reductions and post-modern hipness popular among the Tarantino-generation (although not always Tarantino himself). But, although it never stabilizes into any clear critique – perhaps not although but because it never coheres – Darren Aronofsky’s self-propagating fire of a feature film at least doesn’t treat its self-critique as an excuse to act like it really has any idea what is going on at all within its halls.
It also doesn’t treat its self-critique as an excuse to show-off. The film does show off, of course, but in a thoroughly unbound, anti-appealing, terribly and deliciously alienating way, deliberately unshackled from a clear theme in the usual sense and shorn of the kind of meta-textual gags that repackage frailties and oversights as twee, too-clever self-commentaries on “the limits of cinema”. Mother! is not always a good film, but it is not a cheap or lazy one. If it moves haphazardly, it does not tread on its subject matter lightly or hide its own confusions. If I consider it a half-success, it is only because it is so deeply committed to its own improbabilities and mistakes – so willing to foreground its own inadequacies as narrative, space, time, feel, and soul – that it confounds the very spectrum of success and failure altogether.
Mother! is avowedly alienating, deeply tenuous in its understanding of its own self, slobbering around drunkenly while falling over its disjunctive decorum, totally high on its own ego trip. A mess, basically. It’s also deeply confessional: an obsessive, self-destructive, impulsive film about a poet, labelled Him in the end credits and graced with the booming and sensual baritone of Javier Bardem, who men and women flock to and who is obviously a cipher for writer-director Darren Aronofsky. His last film was a hot-headed Biblical epic about Noah but here, via Bardem, Aronofsky takes on the mantle of an artist-God himself. Or, at least, he has made a film about an artist as a creator that is also an allegorical (de)construction about biblical misogyny, a portrait of a wrathful and benevolent creator-God, or more accurately, God as a nice-guy whose liberal benevolence and paternalism is the respectable, domesticated form of “wrathful,” the point where “punish” slithers into “discipline”. The way Him treats his wife, also unnamed and played by Aronofsky’s own current partner Jennifer Lawrence, is not unlike how many directors famously treat their lead actresses (and actors), how many authority figures coerce subservience. And, not pointlessly, how Harvey Weinstein (much more crudely) has treated so many women in the entertainment industry.
The cheeky literalism of the film’s rampant religious symbolism – totally unwed to dictums about nuance or reality – is admittedly silly, stubborn, and probably childish. But it’s also refreshingly emancipatory in its self-centered earnestness and willingness to embrace “vision”, to “go for it”, and to complicate that vision, all without ever heeding the call of restraint or normativity. It’s a deeply rattled mind of a film, totally paradoxical and contradictory: it’s simultaneously fleet-footed – rushing around, stumbling without direction – and cumbersome – weighty and unable to move forward. It underlines, boldfaces, and italicizes every theme, and yet it is still so elusive that we leave unsure of whether then film is making pointed arguments or simply grasping for ideas. Better yet, or worse still if you prefer, it is at once entirely manifest and literal about its allegorical connotations – sometimes so obvious that it wouldn’t pass muster as an undergrad term film – and yet self-effacing and bewildering, perplexingly unsure of what to say, what to say anything about, where its attentions ought to lie.
In other words, Mother! is colossally obvious in its willingness to treat characters as stand-ins and totems to allusions, figures, ideas, and what have you. It has no interest in feigning sanity in an insane world, and it doesn’t even wish to put its finger on what exactly its point of view is. The whole film is set in one crippled, still-being-built house, a metaphor for an unfinished film or an incomplete world – the point where antediluvian and inchoate meet – but characters keep slipping into the faded manse with comical absurdity, packing it full to bursting with voices, bodies, and ideas like a clown car from hell. Or from Church, since the film is by turns an expression of an unstable God, of disgruntled men, and of destabilized collectives who worship elusive lone wolves in increasingly fanatical ways.
In many ways, Mother! is a mimetic for religion: a bellowing, many-headed cinematic beast that can be both entirely confused and completely committed, philosophically and aesthetically forward and vigorously conservative, and above all, corporeal but loaded up with intangibles that elude us and pronounce an incomplete fate. The opening is all fire-and-brimstone destruction, as though a previous film is vanishing in an instant, paving the way for Bardem’s God-figure – or director-surrogate – to will the entire new film into existence with a crystal that rebirths the house, remakes the world, initiates the film. Cain and Abel also make an appearance, reenacting bloody chapter and verse on the house floor. But the ferocity of the film’s will not to hide its avant-garde maximalism is equally mortifying and transfixing, neither of which could apply without the other. In other words, this is the kind of film that is happy to humiliate itself with how willing it is to jump into the fire and let the waves carry it around, totally unsure of what it actually thinks about its subject and, in other cases, so sure that it pays no heed to the belief that it should stop to think before it acts. All the allusions, each compacting the others into a hedonistic mass of gluttonous filmmaking, don’t so much coalesce into a polemic as warp and weave and tempt and taunt and play, pulling the film apart into pieces rather than centering around any argument.
In fact, a mess is the charitable term for a work constantly at the frontiers of narrative and the borderlands of order. This is egg-beaten cinema, savagely rearranging itself from farcical absurdity to anti-domestic drama to the most astonishingly leaden allegory you can imagine, somehow post-modern because it is pre-modern and refuses modernity’s injunction to rationality, to nuance, to a fetishization for context and explanation, none of which Mother! wants anything to do with. It’s a mythic deconstruction of myth, basically, a visionary film that had the mettle less of a fable than a vision quest or a fever dream handed down by divine intervention. There is, at least, a scenario, but the events don’t exactly get you anywhere along the path to out-of-body ecstasy: Bardem lives with his much-younger wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence and labelled Mother in the end credits although never in the film. Whatever order exists in their ambiguous relationship is disarticulated very quickly by the sudden arrival of, in order, a doctor played by Ed Harris, his sultry partner played by Michelle Pfeiffer, their two sons played by Domnhall and Brian Gleeson, and, finally, a substantially larger and even more unwieldy collection of people who unravel our central couple and cloister them even further.
Just why are all these people here, and what do they even want? Things both screw-in and unscrew from there, but the film only extends its willingness to bracket logic, erode caution, and run amok with a polymorphous, unfettered fervor and an appreciation of the ridiculous as an avenue for the transformative. The inspiration is less the grim austerity of Gaslight than the bubbling toil and trouble of Polanski’s Repulsion, but even that comparison doesn’t capture Mother’s willingness to throw itself into jeopardy. Even the notional bedrock – Lawrence – is scribbled rather than fulfilled; she’s wonderful, but the film totemically treats Lawrence as a vessel and an outline, an unfilled figure that the filmic text – like its literary source material (do I need to tell you the source?) – does not color-in. No wonder everyone hates this one, but although I cannot disagree with them, I would never tell anyone this is a film that shouldn’t be seen.
Ultimately, Mother! is both a self-song adherent to only its own beauty and a completely subservient construction willfully adherent to the logic of the (good) book from which it has taken. Which is to say: the film is dogmatic in its blind faith and its willingness to question by not questioning, its interest not in criticizing the Bible from without but following the logic of its source material – which is more and more apparent by the minute while watching – immanently and without abatement into the realm of the campy and the sensational and the essentially ludicrous. It’s an immanent critique, essentially. If Noah’s protagonist questioned God, Mother! is divinity incarnate, recreating the Bible’s spiritual culmination as a sort of purgatorial burlesque, a ragged, quasi-comic fracas of teases and traumas. Aronofsky has spent two decades now trying on Kubrickian garb, advancing in the pantheon of directors by establishing the kind of clout which production companies leer at, fear, and lust over. Mother! shows that his hubris knows no bounds. At the same time, I would be remiss not to echo AO Scott in claiming that he has perhaps taken sobriety as far as it can go. Scott argues that Mother! is divine comedy in the most literal sense, and while I will not necessarily cosign the claim that the film is humorous, it certainly stresses and strains seriousness past the breaking point, existing at some infernal, hellish place in between tones. Although it comes at the film’s expense, perhaps this unstable, gloriously unhinged, even unsafe tone – rather than pure comedy or drama, rather than any form of incohesion – is an even better, more unholy, gift to the world.
Score: It could be 4 or 10 out of 10, but you probably know if you want to see this behemoth by now. Maybe a 7 if I’m being sensible, but this is not a film for the sensible.