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mother! Review

By Lora Grady

Mother of Pretension

It seems that mother!, the new film from Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan"), can't decide what it wants to be. Is it a horror movie? Whoever cut the trailers sure seems to think so. Or is it a black comedy? Perhaps a parable? Some sort of cinematic screed decrying fame? Or religion? Or perhaps, lord help us, motherhood itself? In the course of its two-hour run, mother! appears at times to be all of these things; and in its very variability it is also at the same time none of them.

Mr. Aronofsky may be straying into David Lynch territory here, undermining his own material in the very act of presenting it so in the end the viewer is rendered confused and sheepish for having taken it seriously. mother! is ostensibly the story of a seemingly-mismatched couple living alone in a huge, half-restored house. No names are given throughout, so one turns to the credits to learn that Jennifer Lawrence ("Joy") plays Mother (no exclamation point). She's married to the much older Him (Javier Bardem, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"), who we eventually learn is a poet in the throes of writer's block.


This odd couple dwell together in a house that's so singularly peculiar that it just has to be a metaphor for something. It's octagonal with multiple levels, some of which seem to jut out like interior platforms, allowing whoever's above to look down on the action below. There's also a creepy old basement that's like something out of "Silence of the Lambs," but rendered utilitarian with the addition of a washer and dryer. Also hinting at symbolism is the house's history: we learn that it belongs to Him and it once burned down, charring the fields around it and turning nearby trees to ash. Mother has been lovingly restoring it, entirely by herself, as a sign of her devotion to Him. To a visitor she explains, "We spend all of our time here. I want to make it paradise."

And, about that visitor: the peculiar house seems adrift in its own world, so its occupants are rightly startled when there's a knock at the door one night. Standing on the porch is a man (Ed Harris, "Rules Don't Apply") - and yes, he's in the credits as Man - who thinks the place is a bed & breakfast. Him allows him in and soon he's extending an invitation to use their guest room, while Mother looks on in mute confusion.

This catalyzing moment sets off a string of events that make up the best segment of mother!. The host and his mysterious guest rapidly form a bond that leaves Mother on the outside looking in - at her household, and her marriage. Man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, "People Like Us") soon joins him, and she arrives like the mother-in-law from hell, getting drunk and smashing heedlessly past boundaries, making pronouncements about the couple's age difference, asking nosy questions about plans for children, and going pretty much anywhere she's not wanted. Ms. Pfeiffer tears into this role with relish, verbally toying with Mother and occasionally skewering her hapless prey with a well-placed patrician sneer.

Ms. Lawrence matches her in the acting department as the increasingly bewildered Mother fights to maintain a veneer of civility, pushed into pretending that the increasingly bizarre behavior of the unwanted guests is all perfectly normal. The interlopers' adult sons arrive, there's a fight about a will...this is Pinteresque territory, a proverbial comedy of menace, and Mr. Aronofsky nails the tone: absurdity on top with an undercurrent of unseen hazard below.

But just as you think "mother!" has settled into its groove it shifts gears, picks up speed, and hurtles toward...what? There's an episode of violence. An act of creation. A pregnancy. More people descend on the house, first a few, then a crowd, then a mob. As they crowd from room to room engaging in bizarre conversations or busying themselves with unhelpful tasks it's suddenly like the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene rendered as a horror movie. Again Mr. Aronofsky masters a particular tone, but to what end?

To say much more would be to say too much. mother! has the element of surprise working in its favor for sure; there's really no predicting where the film is headed. But in the end that's not necessarily a good thing. There's a point after which the story becomes so inscrutable that it's likely to alienate many viewers, and that raises a question: if one of the goals of art is to communicate, to convey a message or to make a point, what is the value of a piece of art that can't be understood? There are certainly moments in mother! that are visually striking, but existence merely as a beautiful object doesn't appear to be what Mr. Aronofsky had in mind for his creation.

So, to see or not to see? That is the question. For those who enjoy thought-provoking films this may be worth a look, but mother! rides the line between challenging and frustrating and too often tips into the latter category. Others may find mother! bombastic, pretentious, smug, preachy, or simply incomprehensible. One thing is certain: it's going to give birth to lively debates among those who do see it; and in that way, mother! will live up to its name.

What did you think?

Movie title mother!
Release year 2017
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Those with a penchant for thought-provoking films may enjoy it, but the latest from writer/director Darren Aronofsky rides the line between challenging and frustrating and too often tips into the latter category.
View all articles by Lora Grady
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