mother! (2017) (R)

This review contains SPOILERS!
If you have a sense of privacy, or any sort of personal space bubble, "mother!" will get under your skin. Frustrating, sometime grotesque, pretentious in a way that only Darren Aronofsky can manage, the film balances on the high wire between surreal and elusively intelligent. What causes such a visceral reaction is having a space where the audience feels safe continuously violated.

The obvious movie that "mother!" has to be compared to is "Antichrist" by Lars von Trier. That film was about an Edenic (in name also) parable with an unnamed man and woman probing the horrors of child loss and female hysteria. Like "Antichrist", there is obviously something going on here that rings true of the Christian tradition; but the surrealism of the film sometimes makes that hard to unlock. We see the lead, known as Mother played by Jennifer Lawrence, consistently in close up leaning up to the house and feeling the heartbeat through her fingers. As the movie progresses a bloody dot appears in the floorboard. These images are held in focus for much of the movie and become watermarks for the building insanity of the picture.

Shot in a remote house that looks like the farm from season 2 of "The Walking Dead", "mother!" is a perspective piece, meaning that we rarely get a point of view (literally) that is not Mother's. She is living in this isolated house with a poet known as Him (Javier Bardem) who spends most of the first half of the movie whining about his lack of inspiration.

When strangers come to visit, Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), things become unhinged as the house starts to fall apart under their havoc. This house is what Mother has spent most of her time repairing and attempting to refurbish. We understand that it was at one point, falling apart; but she rebuilt it for Him, since it is his house.

The idea of possession and ownership is crucial to understanding the movie, which, one unraveled is a clumsy retelling of the Bible from the Christian tradition. The not so subtle naming of "Mother" and "Him" leads us into Christian iconography. Let alone, the swift and ultimately premature retelling of the Cain and Able story which pans out in less than five minutes and sets off the events that let us know the "earth" has been tainted with blood.

Consider Aronofsky's oeuvre prior to "mother!". The last feature film he made was "Noah" which was very concerned with Biblical stories even though it ignored a lot of the doctrine that fundamentalists would be shocked by; but at the film's end the takeaway was the power of faith over evidence. Now look at "mother!" which appears to me to be Aronofsky's own commentary on his last film. If "Noah" was about faith, "mother!" is about God as the ultimate villain.

The intricacies of the plot are not worth spelling out; but as the movie enters its final scenes and the madness descends the facades drop and we see the same eco-friendly sentiment as present in "Noah". While this may be an honorable goal, it's carried out in the most cruelly naive way. Jennifer Lawrence's Mother is a woman with a meek voice who ultimately reclaims ownership of her house from the poet and demands that everyone leave. She kills them. And is left in the arms of the Poet (see: God) who steals her literal heart from her chest and the cycle begins again.

Although the movie could be seen as a testament to female power, I would again advise looking at its similarity to "Antichrist". These are movie that are in awe of the feminine power, almost fetishizing it; but both executed by men. And it's this male voice that overpowers any nuance that may be present in the bones of the story. Mother is shouted over, brutalized, and the film enjoys watching it and enjoys shocking its viewer.

At the final scene, we are left with an idiotic God and, perhaps, a plea for mercy on the planet. Which could have just been made in a press release rather than this movie. Lawrence as Mother is not a strong enough actress to carry the film by herself. The one performance of note here is Michelle Pfeiffer's Woman, who is callous, seductive, and arrogant. But once again we are reminded of Aronofsky's take on the Garden of Eden and her performance, although positively evil at times, leaves a sour taste in my mouth because we see her as the genesis of the destruction.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part is seeing how the Bible lines up with the story of "mother!' but by the end of it, the self-indulgence of Aronofky's "horror" is far too much and it isn't easily accessible to the viewer. His esoteric ramblings make for a sub-par movie. It's disappointing.

Score: ★½

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