MOVIE REVIEW: ‘mother!’ is a beautifully bleak masterwork of epically unpredictable proportions

Thanks to its completely insane, off-the-rails premise that you cannot fathom to see coming, Darren Aronofsky's horror film is darkly, masterfully fulfilling

| September 15, 2017

If anyone has ever talked to me about movies before, you would know that “Kill Bill” is my favorite film of all time, but not that many people know what my second favorite film of all time is: “Black Swan.” Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological thriller paints a beautifully chaotic picture of the downfall of a talented, yet troubled ballet dancer that is perfect in every way. This is a film that objectively can stand next to “Kill Bill” with ease, with the only thing separating “Kill Bill” and “Black Swan” would be that “Black Swan” requires a more specific mood to watch and enjoy at times. Since “Black Swan,” Aronofsky hasn’t done an insane amount that has turned many heads. His 2014 biblical epic, “Noah,” left critics polarized and hasn’t left much of a lasting impression over time, though his two turns at producing “Jackie” and “Aftermath” both resulted in some nicely unconventional films at the hands of other directors (“Jackie” more than “Aftermath”), but his long awaited next piece went under the radar for some time, with many thinking it wouldn’t make its Oct. 27 release. To everyone’s shock, not only did Paramount announce that his film, entitled “mother!” (deliberately lowercase) would indeed make its Oct. 27 release, but that they were shifting it up to Sept. 15. Without a poster or trailer or anything, it seemed that the Aronofsky train was coming into town quickly. The film made its debut with a stunning series of posters and a late-game trailer that didn’t offer much int he way of revealing what the film was actually about. Then came the Venice Film Festival premiere, where hell broke loose. The film was met with some of the most polarizing reactions I have ever seen on a single film, with multiple critics hailing the film as a masterpiece, as well as many hailing it a disaster of horrendous proportions. It doesn’t matter how a film actually is, when a film like “mother!” hits the scene with such a fury, it’s hard to ignore.

None of the characters in “mother!” have names, so I’ll do my best to describe them without them, as well as the plot without revealing anything.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young woman living in a secluded house with her older husband, Him (Javier Bardem), a writer. Mother has re-done the entire childhood home of Him after a fire destroyed it previously. Living a seemingly tranquil life in seclusion, the couple is soon greeted by a stranger at their doorstep one quiet night int he form of Man (Ed Harris), to which Him lets in the house to stay without much fuss, to Mother’s chagrin. The next day, Man’s wife arrives in the form of Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The couple, while well-meaning, often are rude, forward and self-centered, something that Him can’t seem to see, even though Mother tries to convince him of. The seemingly happy couple soon come to find the presence of these two in their home brings about a series of horrific events that neither of them could’ve ever anticipated from simply letting someone in on a quiet night.

That’s all I will say about the plot of “mother!” because to say anything more would be to infringe upon the experience that “mother!” has to offer audiences. Here’s the thing with the film: it really does earn its polarization, as I’m soon coming to realize that this review is either going to make you as a reader happy you read it to see the film, or it’s going to make you HATE ME for having you sit through a film like this. This is a film that is nothing like its trailer or its posters or anything that Paramount has led you to believe with the film, nor is it anything like any other critic (including myself) could tell you. This is a film that defies expectations even in defying expectations, because you simply have never seen a film that seeks to do what Aronofsky does here. Unless you spoil the film for yourself, there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the crazy emotional, visceral, physical and psychological journey that you’re taken on in this film. “mother!” is a film that pushes buttons, looks to offend and seeks to get audiences talking, whether it be in immense praise or disgusting disdain.

And here’s the thing: I loved every damn second of “mother!”

The thing with the performances here is just how strangely constructed they are by actors whom we would consider to be mainstream by all normal standards. Lawrence, less than two years off her conclusion of her über-popular “Hunger Games” series, takes perhaps one of the darkest, strangest roles an A-list star at the top of her game could take in a film such as this. How Lawrence got involved with the film is beyond me, but her performance here is unlike we’ve ever seen from the only 27 year old actress. This is a performance that is captivating in the sheer fluidity of its nature. Aronofsky follows her around in every single shot of the film without reprieve and constantly requires her to be present in every single, batshit crazy moments “mother!” has to offer, and Lawrence delivers with a shocking amount of physicality and emotion you wouldn’t expect from a character with no name. Bardem is also incredibly effective, playing up the, again, batshit crazy nature of the film and performance to put forth something so incredibly devilish that it’s difficult to watch and somehow impossible to look away. Harris is quite good in his role, but it’s Pfeiffer who steals the supporting show with a character so magnetically repulsive that you can’t help but want her on screen even when she’s being horribly cruel. This is the power of Pfeiffer that filmmakers love to overlook, and Aronofsky utilizes her perfectly here.

Shot on 16mm film with an ambiguous time period the film is set in, “mother!” is gritty from the moment the Paramount logo begins, but Aronofsky and long-time DP Matthew Libatique have crafted an incredibly lush film solely inside the home of the doomed couple. The way in which Libatique follows Lawrence around the home in tight, close angles gives the film a claustrophobic feel while also using the house’s visuals as a way of making the universe inside the home feeling expansive and seemingly maze-like when the time gets down to it. Utilizing an ambiguous time frame in the film, “mother!” has a timeless feel to it that’s going to afford it to stand the test of time when critics and scholars are still debating the film a decade from now. With exquisite production design from Philip Messina (who also did the production design for all four “Hunger Games” films, also starring Lawrence), there is a beauty to the film that you don’t often get from films of its nature: it’s gritty and vintage feeling, while also never straying from feeling elegant and extravagant at the same time.

Absent of a musical score, the silence and natural sounds of “mother!” take a while to get used to, as the typical structure of the modern horror film is challenged without the ambient music moving with the film’s natural ebb and flow. And yet, it’s that sort of silence that makes “mother!” all the more haunting when the film finally does become chaotic and loud, with the natural sounds of horrific events pulse-pounding the theater as opposed to loud, screeching music places us closer into Lawrence’s shoes that we could get with a musical score. That being said, I would’ve liked to have seen a version of the film with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score in place before it was mutually decided to erase it from the final film.

“mother!” is not an easy film to watch in the slightest. When you finally begin to realize that the film is going in directions that you could’ve never guess that it would’ve, it leaves a massive pit in your stomach in wondering just how this couple is going to get out of this. It’s one of the first films in a while that I cans ay that I genuinely felt scared by as I simply didn’t know Aronofsky was going to do with the film, and I knew from precedent that he has no issue going the extra mile to shock and offend audiences whenever he can, and he does so here in away that I can’t say I’ve ever seen before on film. Some will love it, others will loathe it, everyone will talk about it. “mother!” is a film that earns its R-rating in spades, even if it only seeks to do so in its final moments.

I could sit here all day and tell you just how amazing “mother!” is, but I figured that this is the point where I would begin to find myself in spoiler territory, to which I cannot afford to do. My advice? Give “mother!” a go, but don’t blame me if you hate it (I will accept “thank you’s” if you end up loving it as much as I did, though). This is a film that is as artsy as it is controversial as it is terrifying. And don’t even get me started on the allegories that Aronofsky is making with the film (there’s one massive one, as well as many other smaller ones you could easily fashion out of the film), as the film does tell two completely different stories if you look at it analytically and far more than at face value, which I felt the audience in my showing tonight found themselves doing, which is why I feel like I found myself being about the only person who really felt strongly about the film. Understanding the film’s message won’t make you like it if you don’t already, it’ll simply seek to reinforce and strengthen the feelings you already hold for the film, however which way they fall. “mother!” is a film that will leave you not looking at anyone involved the same way again, nor will it leave you feeling like any horror film for the rest of the century could ever even slightly accomplish the sort of ambition that Aronofsky is going for here. The sheer craft that has gone into the construction of “mother!” is impressive enough, but to make a film so button-pushing, so bleak, so unpredictable and so unconventional with an A-list cast (including some surprising cameos) and a major studio behind it, and then make it achieve that sort of ambition makes “mother!” the film that I’ll remember most from 2017.

5/5

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Runtime: 121 minutes
Rating: R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.

Paramount Pictures presents, a Protozoa production, a film by Darren Aronofsky, “mother!”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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