The only thing I immediately understand about Darren Aronofsky’s latest masterful creation of a living nightmare is the exclamation point in its title: “mother!”
I’m still puzzling over the other aspects of the film. I’m even unsure about the other aspects of the title: Why is the “m” lowercase? Who is the “mother” being referenced? Why is motherhood front and center as a concept for a film with these particular plot points?
But the exclamation point, I get. This is a film that comes in loud, fast, and strong, and doesn’t let up. In fact, if the title were simply an exclamation point, or several in a row, I would think it was entirely appropriate.
Before “mother!” was screened for press, the publicist in charge of the screening forwarded several pages of production notes, along with the studio’s “strong” recommendation that critics read them before seeing the movie.
I would never do such a thing, and I didn’t. (Actually, I still haven’t read them.) I figured, if I could make it through 18 hours of “Twin Peaks: The Return” this summer, I was prepared to handle whatever non-linear, shocking, bizarre, audience-unfriendly thing Darren Aronofsky could throw at me.
So I actually knew very little about “mother!” when I sat down to see it. And whatever the studio may say, that is the way that I would recommend for everyone to see this movie. A blank slate.
I understand the studio’s point of view. This movie is different. It’s different from anything else that has or likely will pop up in the neighborhood megaplex the rest of this year. I know the critics in the room at my screening appeared fiercely mixed.
One complaint I heard was that it wasn’t “clear.” Like “Twin Peaks,” “mother!” exists in a space and logic that more closely resemble a dream than a linear narrative. I’m almost certain this will be David Lynch’s favorite movie of the year.
And it’s without a doubt one of mine.
As someone who cannot tell you what this movie is or is trying to be “about,” as the bad student film critic who showed up without doing the assigned homework, I can only report on my subjective experience with the images, sounds and performances of this film — all of which I found to be riveting in every moment.
The plot is easy to sum up but not at all the main draw: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple living in a large, isolated house in the woods, who begin to receive strange and unsettling houseguests. The guests put a strain the couple’s relationship, especially because they each respond so unsettlingly differently to the bizarre turns of events after the guests’ arrival.
Whatever the film lacks in conventional narrative beats, it makes up for in spades with the pacing, which goes from zero to sixty over the course of just one Michelle Pfeiffer. The film’s events — inexplicable they may be — happen at breakneck speed. And the sound design gets under your skin as much as the images do.
The tightest clench the film had on me was in the performances, especially that of Jennifer Lawrence, whose reputation for being “relatable” comes in handy as she takes on the job of audience surrogate, and whose sheer talent, especially for producing inner turmoil that crackles under the surface of a friendly and personable outer layer, has never been more electric.
As far as I’m concerned, Darren Aronofsky and David Lynch have created cinematic experiences in 2017 that have made me feel something nothing else has this year, something that cinema probably always did in its earliest days of existence, and only occasionally has throughout its history: the feeling of pure wonder, like being in a dream.
Film can more closely recreate the experience of being in a dream than any other kind of art (at least, until virtual reality becomes more readily available to artists). So it’s a wonder why so much of cinema is filled with conventional paint-by-numbers storytelling. With “mother!,” Aronofsky has done the painstaking work of creating a detailed, complex world that can only exist onscreen (or in a dream), one that moves and feels like a nightmare all the way down to the gut.
The movie might have metaphorical “meaning.” It probably does. But if its value was limited to its allegorical message, it would be boring to watch. Like reading production notes before a screening, the film itself would be homework. But this film isn’t homework. It’s a visceral experience unlike anything else on the big screen right now.
It’s the kind of movie that sizzles with just as much intensity as a blockbuster but doesn’t digest so easily that it’s out of your system almost immediately after you see it. On the contrary, it’s the kind of film experience that is as rewarding to think about and simmer in as it was to watch, wondering about the different pieces and what they mean.
And that is the time — during the simmering stage — when I feel it’s appropriate to crack open those production notes. However irrelevant whatever is in them may be to my experience watching the film itself, now that I’ve seen it and I’m hooked, I do want to play in this mental space for more time, unpacking and exploring the vast world only a movie with this much imagination and ambition can create.
Maybe I will go read those now.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Rating: R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language