Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” (2017)

Notable Festivals: Venice

One of the lesser-talked about aspects of pursuing a career in filmmaking is the loss of that visceral or “magic” sensation that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place.  The ability to passively sit back and let ourselves get swept up in the story becomes hampered by an active deconstruction of narrative logic, performance, or mise-en-scene. Emotion & empathy takes a back seat to intellectual scrutiny, robbing us of the thrills or exhilaration that the filmmaker worked so hard for us experience.  Once in a while, however, a film comes along out of nowhere and lands with such increasingly-rare impact that we surrender the entirety of our senses to its power. Despite marketing materials that heavily emphasized its supposedly-batshit narrative, I was not expecting such an outcome when I sat down to a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 feature MOTHER!— sure enough, however, I was so shaken by the film that I had to wander outside in a daze for nearly an hour.  I needed time to process what I’d just seen, but I knew I had loved every minute… and that most audiences would loathe it.

Aronofsky, of course, is no stranger to dramatically polarized reactions to his work— the foundation of his artistry is built upon it.  Ever since the protagonist put a power drill to his head in his debut feature PI (1998), Aronofsky has sought to elicit visceral exhortations of shock and disgust from viewers.  The difference, however, between Aronofsky’s gruesome predilections and the torture porn titillation of, say, the SAW franchise, is the intimidating intelligence that drives it.  The phrase “tortured artist” doesn’t seem particularly apt to describe Aronofsky; he typically comes across as a soft-spoken, buttoned-up intellectual in interviews.  Nevertheless, MOTHER! — easily the most ambitious marriage of his cerebral narrative approach and gut-wrenching visual flourishes — was born from a place of deep sadness and anguish on Aronofsky’s part (2).  Following the success of 2014’s NOAH, he reportedly turned his attentions towards a project that would be a first in his filmography: a film for children (3).  As it turns out, it’s a bit difficult to write for children when their future isn’t as rosy as their cheeks. Indeed, how could anyone, when the world is on fire, fascist authoritarianism is on the rise, and family dinners are spent blankly staring into the glow of smartphones?  Aronofsky’s existential despair had built up like water against a dam, and the only way to relieve the pressure was to express it in the form of art. Thus, MOTHER! was born, its first draft screenplay feverishly dashed out over the course of five mad days (whereas Aronofsky’s normal gestation period is measured in years (1)).  Like his script, Aronofsky’s latest Protozoa production came together exceedingly quickly, shepherded by his longtime producing partners Scott Franklin and Ari Handel over the course of a few months while Aronofsky conducted extensive rehearsals with his cast in a Brooklyn warehouse.  This gonzo strain of frenzied focus would carry on through to the shoot in Montreal and, ultimately, the finished product— itself a flaming phoenix of cinematic anarchy encompassing nothing less than the whole of human civilization.

mother!

The “plot” of MOTHER! is hard to describe, if only because it doesn’t operate on a straightforward narrative level.  Every character and event is suffused with allegorical meaning, rooted in the self-contained setting of an isolated farmhouse that seemingly exists outside of both time and space.  Jennifer Lawrence anchors the film as the eponymous “Mother”, a woman who has given the entirety of herself over to her husband, played by Javier Bardem and identified only as “Him”.  He is a poet, albeit a tortured one that suffers from a severe case of writer’s block. Mother seems to exist only for Him, with no exterior or interior life of her own beyond fixing up their farmhouse and catering to his creative needs.  Their fragile harmony begins to fray when a Man (Ed Harris) arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to stay the night while he passes through. In letting Man in, however, Mother and Him unwittingly invite a cascading series of unimaginable, increasingly chaotic events that will come to include a funeral, a birth, and a fiery reckoning.  Aronofsky’s biblical and anthropological allusions aren’t exactly difficult to draw out, but the tidiness of their allegorical significance nevertheless resists close scrutiny. In other words, Aronofsky gives us just enough detail to track the roles his characters play in the larger ur-narrative while leaving plenty of room for a variety of personal interpretations.  My own read of the film first requires further discussion of its technical construction and other thematic conceits, but there’s still plenty to remark about on the surface level of MOTHER!’s story, especially as it pertains to the performances.

If MOTHER! can be called a star vehicle for Lawrence, then it can also be said that Aronofsky never deviates from a cockpit view.  Everything orbits around Lawrence and her tour-de-force performance— she is the Earth (or “Gaia”, as Aronofsky himself describes her), and all the other cast members are satellites circling past her periphery.  The fact that Lawrence goes barefoot throughout the entirety of the movie so as to emphasize her organic connection to the farmhouse (1) points to the rich level of detail and commitment that she gives to a character who, at least on paper, serves as a relatively-blank cypher for the audience to experience the film through.  A nurturer by nature, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, wanting nothing in return except for the love of her husband, Him. Despite his personal malaise over his lack of productivity, he is ultimately an exceedingly warm and attentive man who is able to return her love in full and still have some left over for his increasingly-needy houseguests.  Indeed, he is accommodating to a fault, welcoming of strangers with open, trusting arms because he can’t help but revel in their praise for his writing. By turning his gaze away from Mother, he inadvertently puts her through all nine circles of Hell until she has nothing left to give him… and even then, he still requires more of her. Despite their significant gap in age, Bardem’s casting complements Lawrence’s rather well, balancing her character’s youthful naïveté with a seasoned, almost-otherworldly gravitas.  

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, as Man and Woman respectively, are the disharmonious yin to Mother and Him’s yang.  Their presence illuminates the unbridgeable gap between their host’s characters and proceeds to widen that chasm even further.  Identifying himself as a surgeon and teacher when he unexpectedly arrives in the middle of the night, Man proves himself a toxic presence in the house— it’s not enough that he’s simply intrusive, he also brings sickness into Mother and Him’s lives.  He’s constantly sneaking cigarettes, despite an alarmingly severe cough that speaks magnitudes about how little time he has left on this Earth. Woman proves equally abrasive, also arriving unexpectedly a day later and quickly overtaking Mother’s energies with her icy sexual aggressiveness and high-grade alcoholism.  Real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleason play their two adult sons, the former a slimy misogynist and the latter a wiry, spoiled twerp who arrives in a red-hot rage over learning he’s been cheated out of his inheritance. It’s at this point that MOTHER!’s cast loses control of its contained chamber-drama nature, with strangers multiplying at an alarming rate until the house is absolutely stuffed.  Most are nameless extras, but Aronofksy notably casts Kristin Wiig against-type as Him’s corporate-y publisher, credited only as “Herald”. Indeed, a quick glance at IMDB’s cast listing for MOTHER! further shades out the biblical/mythical connotations of his allegorical ambitions, featuring bit-part characters named Cupbearer, Fool, Whisperer, Penitent and Devourer, among so many others.

Aronofsky’s technical execution reinforces his vision of MOTHER! as a 2-hour stress attack.  Once again working his trusted director of photography Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky returns to the 2.35:1 16mm film format that lent so much visceral grit and organic weight to previous films like THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2010).  These films, and now MOTHER!, etch into stone the idea that Aronofsky is not cut out to be a studio filmmaker; he thrives in the indie environment, where a smaller production footprint affords him plenty of nimbleness and his affections for lo-fi filmmaking formats and techniques are appreciated.  The 16mm gauge in particular has come to serve as something of a calling card for Aronofsky, with its amplified grain texture allowing his work to stand out amongst the hordes of slick, yet inescapably sterile, digital content that populates our screens today. Its deployment in MOTHER! echoes the earthiness of the story while capturing an ethereal aura in the imperfection of its chemistry.  A lot of ink has been spilled about digital‘s increasing ability to match the quality of film to the point that, to the average observer, there is no discernible difference.  However, the fact remains that film is a chemical process whereas digital is an electronic one; one could shoot the exact same composition using the exact same lens and lighting setup, but the two resulting images will always be fundamentally different.  Aronofsky and Libatique understand this, using the increasingly-minute quality of celluloid’s distinguishing aspects as a storytelling tool— the volatile, unreplicable alchemy of exposing grain crystals to light (as opposed to capturing light onto an electronic sensor) imbues the light itself with life; a palpable, fleeting luminosity that underscores MOTHER!’s very existence.  As such, the quality of light on display throughout MOTHER! takes on an ethereal beauty: dim, cool daylight and the warm, sensual amber of incandescent practicals come nightfall.  This is, of course, before Hell itself arrives at Mother’s doorstep and bombards the farmhouse with a fusillade of garish fluorescents, ash-choked moonlight, and searing fire.

MOTHER! succeeds at generating an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere through a series of complementary artistic decisions passed along through the entirety of the production pipeline.  The film is shot almost exclusively handheld, immediately creating a present-tense realism and a restless energy. To better unify the film’s perspective to that of his protagonist, Aronofsky and Libatique limit their coverage to 3 basic setups— the first being a closeup composition that is always tracking Mother’s facial performance as she moves throughout the farmhouse, the second being corresponding over-the-shoulder angles that aim to establish her spatial relationship to the events she’s witnessing, and the third being direct POV shots through her eyes.  The result is an effect akin to hyper tunnel vision, propelling Mother and the audience through a narrow space while intensifying the surrounding chaos.  

Philip Messina’s production design further evokes the growing claustrophobia in his vision of the farmhouse itself, which incorporates a recurring octagonal motif both in its structure as well as various decorational elements.  An exercise in the marriage of interesting aesthetic design and thematic underscoring, the heavy usage of the octagon shape is quite appropriate to Aronofsky’s narrative. The shape was employed by many ancient civilizations, who associated the number eight with the idea of “rebirth” or “renewal”, further entangling the relationship between the earthly and the divine in its merging of the square and the circle.  MOTHER!’s allegorical conceits deal heavily in the language of rebirth, suggesting an infinitely-repeating cycle of creation & destruction that echoes scientific theories about the perpetual expanding & contracting of the universe.  On a visceral level, the farmhouse’s octagonal shape serves to muddle the audience’s bearings, constantly subverting Aronofsky’s deliberate use of extended tracking shots that follow Mother through various rooms. It’s a rather inspired idea, using the visual language & continuity of motion typically employed to establish spatial orientation, but within a form factor that actively obscures our sense of geography.  We always know what room Mother is in on an intellectual level, but we can never quite discern where she is in relation to the rest of the house— the corners always seem to be closing in on themselves… and by extension, us. That Messina renders the farmhouse interiors in various neutral shades (similarly echoed in the clothes worn by the characters) results in an abstractified, relatively-colorless environment that boosts the narrative’s metaphorical, “outside of time” qualities.

In the absence of color within the frame itself, Aronofsky uses the remaining tools in his arsenal to give MOTHER! its tactile depth and contrast.  This includes aforementioned elements like lighting and a neutral color palette, but also post-production tools like visual effects, editing, and sound design.  The VFX work goes a long way towards establishing the farmhouse itself as a living, breathing entity that Mother is intimately connected to— she’s able to sense a delicate heartbeat behind the drywall and plaster, and can glimpse fleeting, skeletal visions of charred woodwork that pulse throughout the house like heavy breaths.  There’s also an arresting image of a lightbulb pooling with blood until it explodes and sends plasma splattering everywhere. Returning editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a swift pace that builds exponentially in tandem with a hyper-aggressive sound mix, resulting in an effect that’s not unlike being caught within the whirlpool of a flushing toilet… spinning faster and faster as we circle the drain.  Notably, MOTHER! features no music whatsoever until Patti Smith covers “The End Of The World” over the end titles.  An original score by the late Johan Johansson was planned, and even produced, but nixed as early as the rough cut stage (4) when he and Aronofksy came to the conclusion that the film worked better without music.  Their decision — an admirable display of creative restraint — proves to be the right one; there’s something infinitely more disturbing about MOTHER!’s spiral descent into madness without the accompaniment of bombastic music cues constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.  The absence of score allows us to better witness the narrative from Mother’s viewpoint while denying the sense of safety and remove that stems from theatrical artifice.

If the entirety of Aronofsky’s feature output can be boiled down to a singular, unifying thematic idea, then it stands to reason said theme is the collision of logic and faith.  From PI’s besieged mathematician to NOAH’s eponymous biblical hero, the arc of each Aronofsky protagonist passes through this prism, giving the director an avenue to approach religion and belief from an intellectual standpoint.  Having been raised, as he describes, in a non-practicing, “culturally” Jewish household, Aronofsky uses his art to exhibit his primarily-anthropological interest in religion and its influence on human behavior.  As previously mentioned, MOTHER! stands as the arguable apex of this career-long excavation, its allegorical storytelling approach being the reason for its very existence.  In crafting a story about a woman under siege by recurrent tidal waves of hostile humanity within her own home, Aronofsky expresses a cinematic lament over our apparent powerlessness to curb runaway climate change in the face of self-enriching presidential administrations and pollution-friendly corporations, all the while tying in the grand sweep of civilized history to demonstrate how our self-destructive tendencies are dyed in the wool.  In other words, our ability and apparent willingness to eradicate ourselves is a feature of the species— not a bug. 

As mentioned before, MOTHER!’s narrative isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead assigning allegorical correlation with both religious and world history to make a larger statement on the human condition and our failure to be responsible stewards of the Earth (spoilers below).  As the personification of the Earth itself, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, inviting her husband and houseguests to take advantage of her generosity until she has nothing left to give. The events of the film put her under significant duress, manifest at several junctures in the form of increasingly-violent tremors that push Mother to the floor.  These moments resemble earthquakes, illustrating the raw destructive power that lurks underneath. Bardem’s character stands in for God, his profession as a poet/writer alluding to The Almighty’s unfettered creativity. The arrival of Man’s character signifies Adam, an already-compromised creation whose sickness alludes to the frailty of human life. It’s no coincidence that the night after Mother accidentally catches a glimpse of a vicious scar over Man’s rib, Woman arrives on her doorstep.  Him’s office can be read as the Garden of Eden, his treasured crystal artifact becoming an object of obsessive temptation for Man and Woman not unlike the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. We later learn this crystal is forged from the charred remains of the previous Mother’s heart, underscoring that her love and generosity is a precious gift that’s easily destroyed. The hot-blooded murder of Man’s son by his other son is an obvious reference to the biblical story of Cain & Abel, while the boy’s subsequent funeral, attended by an increasingly-populous and out-of-control congregation, represents both humanity’s growing numbers and its wanton sinfulness.  The first half of the film culminates when some particularly-careless “mourners” accidentally rip Mother’s unbraced sink away from the wall and unleash a torrent of water that clears out the house; this can be read as an allegory for the Great Flood in the Old Testament, in which God drowned out his compromised creations and wiped the slate clean.

The ensuing argument between Mother and Him leads to their making up via making love, and Mother wakes up the following morning with the supernatural realization that she’s already pregnant.  Overcome with love and a regained appreciation for life, Him is struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and immediately scribbles out the first new poem he’s written in years— a New Testament, if you will… the beginning of a new covenant with humanity based on compassion and forgiveness rather than tempestuous wrath.  The resulting text single-handedly resurrects his career, drawing in a growing tide of admirers whose lives he touched with the beauty of his words. This second half of the film is where the narrative really plays into the thematic throughline of Aronofsky’s work: his anthropological fascination with the bleakest, darkest aspects of the human experience.  Mother’s grip on the situation quickly spirals out of control as people keep coming— an endless wave of increasingly-frenzied fanatics who erupt into fistfights with each other and steal Mother and Him’s belongings as if they were precious artifacts to be hoarded.  In selfishly ransacking a farmhouse they’ve come to regard as a holy temple to their creator poet, they suggest the compounding dangers of rampant overpopulation and religious fanaticism.  Before Mother can kick each trespasser out of her house, the crowd has seemingly merged into a singular glob of chaos— a parasite or disease that is quickly devouring the Earth. Aronofsky takes an evident truth — that it’s in our nature to destroy beautiful things — and maps it out over a harrowing, mind-melting escalation that sees each room in the house become a diorama for the horrors of the 20th century: famine, concentration camps, human trafficking, brutal riots, war, and terrorism.  By refusing to deviate from Mother’s viewpoint, Aronofsky expertly orchestrates a sense of overwhelming chaos and incomprehensible panic, evoking the deep existential horror that comes from both the loss of control and the absence of logic.

MOTHER!’s steep nosedive into the bowels of hell culminates in the birth of a baby boy, heralded as something of a Messiah by the frenzied masses below.  In what is easily the most disturbing, gut-churning moment in a film already stuffed with images of sudden blunt-force trauma, exploding jawlines, and even a blood-squirting toilet creature, Aronofsky easily outdoes the body horror of previous films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) or BLACK SWAN by showing the crowd seize the newborn and feverishly rip it apart into bite-sized chunks.  This is a horrifically-literal echo of Communion, the sacrament celebrated by Catholics at every mass with the consumption of bread that’s regarded as “the body of Christ”.  That Him is all too ready to forgive the crowd for this unspeakable act reminds us of the Christian God’s compassion, knowingly sending his only son to slaughter so that humanity could be saved.  Mother, however, does not share Him’s compassion— the loss of her baby sends her into a murderous rage, culminating in her burning the whole house down on top of everyone (likely an allusion to runaway global warming, the inescapable terminus of humanity’s total domination over the planet).  While Aronofsky presents the majority of MOTHER! through a Western perspective, his final reveal draws from Eastern thought— specifically, the idea of reincarnation.  Evoking THE FOUNTAIN’s ruminations on the endless cycle of death & rebirth, MOTHER! ends with Him digging Mother’s heart from her charred body and forging it into a new incarnation of the precious crystal he keeps on display in his study.  As a new day dawns, the house builds itself back up from the ashes, and a new Mother (played by a different actress with a fleeting resemblance to Lawrence) wakes up in her bed just as she did at the beginning of the film.  With this final beat, Aronofksy alludes to the theoretical reincarnation of the universe itself: a continual expansion and contraction of the cosmos that provides a rather-tidy answer to the question of what preceded The Big Bang.

All of this is extremely heady stuff, to be sure, and poses quite the challenge in connecting with an audience that mostly regard movies as an opportunity to switch off their brains for two hours.  As it turns out, said audiences — especially those of the American variety — really weren’t up for an evening of sensory overload and confrontational anthropology.  MOTHER! earned itself an exceedingly rare “F” CinemaScore, reflecting the general repulsion manifest in its relatively-meager  worldwide gross of $44M over its $30M budget. The film’s critical reception, however, tells a much different story: after premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, jurors nominated MOTHER! for their highest honor, the Golden Lion.  Several prominent critics from Rolling Stone, The Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian subsequently issued rave reviews, applauding its allegorical audacity.  This isn’t to say that other reviews weren’t negative — indeed, there were plenty of critics who were all too eager to file scathing notices. If anything, MOTHER!’s polarized reception speaks to the success of Aronofsky’s efforts.  The repulsion is the point; when confronted with a visceral portrait of humanity’s capacity for (and long history of) atrocity, we should be disgusted and horrified.  Our collective desire to be & do better is the only way to break the cycle of chaos and bloodshed that will ultimately end in the boiling annihilation of the only home we’ve ever known.  Despite its perceived “failure” as a commercial product, MOTHER! succeeds in hammering its message home, and in so doing, confirms Aronofsky’s legacy as a creator of transgressive & fearlessly independent cinema.

MOTHER! is currently available on 4K Ultra High Definition Blu Ray via Paramount

Credits:

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Produced by: Scott Franklin, Ari Handel

Director of Photography: Matthew Libatique

Production Design by: Philip Messina

Editing by: Andrew Weisblum

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: Shanley, Patrick (September 21, 2017). “Darren Aronofsky Responds to ‘Mother!’s’ “F” CinemaScore”. The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved October 5, 2017.
  3. Via Wikipedia: Brooks, Xan (September 7, 2017). “Darren Aronofsky on Mother! – ‘Jennifer Lawrence was hyperventilating because of the emotion'”. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved September 7, 2017.
  4. Via Wikipedia: Noone, Greg (September 18, 2017). “Inside the Dreamy Nightmare of Mother!’s Music-Free Soundscape”. Vanity Fair. Condé Nast. Retrieved May 7, 2018.