Darren Aronofsky wants there to be no confusion about the intent behind his new allegorical whatever-it-is, mother!. (I use his preferred stylization of the title, even after everything he has done to me.) Eschewing such aesthetic values as subtlety and ambiguity, Aronofsky has delivered a psychological horror film that he is so worried will not deliver his authorial intent that he’s been going around explaining exactly what it means to anyone who will listen. This is a rough task for everyone involved, but luckily, he has been able to enlist the star of the film, Jennifer Lawrence, to help him out. He is sleeping with Ms. Lawrence, which presumably makes it easier for him to explain things.
For the rest of us, though, it’s a rather brutal slog to get from Aronofsky’s intentions to his execution. mother! is one of those rare treasures that spends it first half being so completely impenetrable that you have no idea what’s going on, and its second half being so crushingly obvious that you wish it was the first half again. If director’s commentaries were still a thing, the prospect of hearing him gas on about the murky soup of environmentalism, the creative process, and the nature of God that constitutes the film’s extremely tenuous raison d’etre would be far more terrifying than anything in the movie itself.
mother! concerns itself, at least on the surface beneath which lurks its throbbing and deeply stupid metaphor, with the young wife of a tortured poet. (The fact that he manages to live high on the hog off a poet’s pay is our first sign that the film doesn’t take place in our shared reality.) The poet, played by a somnambulant Javier Bardem, has a bad case of writer’s block, which manifests itself in an extremely cinematic manner, and also keeps him from knocking up Jennifer Lawrence. After a perplexing visit from a mysterious stranger played by a cadaverous Ed Harris, the movie turns into a spiraling series of escalating threats, both implied and actual, which allow Aronofsky too indulge in his usual Biblical obsessions, throw around some back-pocket surrealism, and create a few moments of genuine menace before he completely lets go and uses his philosophical vehicle to repeatedly run over Lawrence’s beautifully photographed and constantly abused body.
Harris and a terrifyingly nasty Michelle Pfeiffer do what little heavy lifting Aronofsky’s leadbound script allows in terms of acting. These are not, to put it mildly, roles that require much depth or emotional resources; Bardem is given the kind of lines that often populate these kind of quasi-fairy-tale allegories — intentionally flat and abstracted. The belief is that they will heighten the unreal mood of the proceedings, but in practice, as is certainly the case here, they just leave him with nothing to do and he just seems to want to get the whole thing over with. As for Lawrence, a debate can be had over whether or not she’s actually a good actress rather than just the most famous one on the planet; my opinion is that she can be very fine, but her range of options here consists of being mildly put out and being grotesquely abused, so it’s not like you need a really good actress for the part. (To be clear, this is a criticism of the movie, not of Lawrence, who definitely deserves better than to be put through this particular wringer.)
So much for the performances. What about the direction? Aronofsky is a famously divisive filmmaker, with many people convinced he’s a once-in-a-lifetime genius auteur and many more equally convinced he’s a complete fraud. I’ve wavered on his talents a bit myself; I never saw Black Swan or The Fountain, I hated Requiem for a Dream and Noah, I liked The Wrestler but saw nothing like genius in it, and I enjoyed Pi when I saw it but haven’t thought about it again in over fifteen years. If mother! was all I had to judge him on, though, I would come down so hard in the ‘complete fraud’ camp that I’d leave a dent in the ground. This thing is pretentious with a flaming capital P, from the pacing (plodding rather than deliberate, leaving itself just enough space to be boring but never enough to settle into an actual perspective) to the camerawork (swirling mobile shots that are supposed to establish the strangeness of the setting but read as a parody of queasy low-budget art cinema). It’s the work of someone who is absolutely convinced that he has a point, but doesn’t take a minute to think about whether he’s sheathed it in anything worth paying attention to.
A lot of critics seem to have gone gaga for this hogwash. It’s probably why everyone has let it off the hook for qualities that would pester lesser-loved works like horseflies, including its weird racial nods (the only black character with any lines is a woman whose job is to appear out of nowhere and act as Lawrence’s midwife) and an ongoing series of humiliations and injuries to its female lead that would read as radioactively misogynist in a horror movie by a no-name director. (Saying ‘that’s the point!’ works with someone of Lars Von Trier’s talent and intelligence, but Aronofsky is strictly running on fumes here.) There’s definitely an artificial sense of reality at work — it gets that much right — but calling it ‘surreal’ is cutting reality pretty short. Much, too, is made of its nightmarish qualities; but mother! isn’t like those nightmares where you wake screaming in the middle of the night, jarred back into the world by the horrors your mind forced you to confront. It’s more like those nightmares where you have to count up a bunch of numbers or collect a bunch of stuff to put in a big pile, only the pile just keeps getting bigger and the numbers never really add up. It’s a deeply dull nightmare, the kind that leaves you asking not what it means or why it happened to you, but just when it’s finally going to be over.