Not since A Serbian Film (2010) have I seen the public so divided at the movies. Usually, it's a foreign production that becomes the center of attention when controversy and filmgoers' sensibilities are involved. Europeans and Asians in particular have a knack for pushing the envelope, testing boundaries (or doing away with them altogether), all while challenging and/or reframing the cinematic experience as we know it. This is not to say American filmmaking is exempt, but we talk about 'those' works as niche, arthouse, or indie, whereas Darren Aronofsky's latest effort had a mainstream marketing campaign and a nationwide release, starring current America's sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Theatrical trailers suggest it to be a psychological thriller. A little bit of haunted house, a sprinkle of home invasion with many an uninvited guest, a dash of a egocentric, gaslighting husband, wrapped in a crisp layer of token horror misogyny. Turns out, it is all that and more. We are treated to an exceptional biblical allegory that is so prevalent, to call it "on the nose" would be too kind. The gist of it is that Lawrence as "Mother" is mother Earth, Javier Bardem as "Him" is God, while Ed Harris as "Man" and Michelle Pfeiffer as "Woman" are Adam and Eve. The house, located in the middle of nowhere with no visible roads or trails leading to it, is their Eden. And so begins the descent into Aronofsky's great parable. Many have called Mother! high concept, pretentious theological drivel but, in truth, there is not much to mull over here. Every little detail is painstakingly charted out for the audience, if they've stayed long enough to look and listen that is. It reminded me of the kinds of films we would watch regularly in film school. That's not a bad thing, but Mother! is at once too imposing for the general public and too obvious for the cultivated cineaste, successfully alienating both groups.
As the credits rolled, the viewers in my theatre were nothing short of livid. Mind you, they were mostly frat bros who giggled and whistled at the sight of Lawrence's protruding nipples, but it was clear the marketing team missed the mark on this one. Having said that, we complain when theatrical previews reveal too much, so a little mystery is always welcome. People were expecting too see Lawrence in a new role, but not one so brutal. Yes, Aronofsky has a history of 'mindfuck' films under his belt, yet the systematic obscenity and mounting violence of Mother! go far beyond what Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2010), or Black Swan (2010) had to offer. Did I enjoy this film as a whole? No. However, the cinematography is top notch as are the film's promotional materials. There is thought behind them and undeniable creativity. Mother! deserves to be seen. It deserves to be discussed, vehemently so, but remains largely style over substance and although all involved have secured it a cushy place in film history as one of the most polarizing films to date, we should call their bluff.