I think Anthony Lane from The New Yorker hits the nail on the head with his review:
“If you gave an extremely bright 15-year-old a bag of unfamiliar herbs to smoke and 40 million or so dollars to play with, Mother! would be the result.”
This is a weird film, to say the least; under any other director, it would’ve been dismissed as comically pretentious, but, for whatever reason, the movie-going community takes interest in it because Darren Aronofsky’s surreal imagination somehow gives it a pass.
At face value, the plot is simple, at least until the third act; a young married couple living in a country paradise welcomes two incredibly rude guests (Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris) into their home. The husband (Javier Bardem) finds them fascinating in spite of their increasingly blatant ingratitude and disrespect, but the wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is angered by their insolence and demands that they leave. As more and more guests invite themselves into the home, their behavior becomes increasingly ungracious, leading into the climax that culminates in a bizarre and disturbing act of cruelty that tears everything apart.
I’d hesitate to call it a problem, necessarily, but one of the most frustrating things about this movie is that no one seems to know what it is about on a deeper level. It could be about a lot of things, really--global warming, the patriarchy, motherhood, war, terrorism, immigration, or fame- but I think the most substantiated interpretation is a biblical allegory that describes a figurative “marriage” between God and Mother Earth, in which the human race drives a wedge between God, who loves them and thinks they should be forgiven despite their cruelty and ingratitude, and Mother Earth, who can’t bear to see her paradise destroyed by ungrateful savages who feel entitled to her home and everything in it. The biblical parallels- the forbidden fruit, Cain and Abel, Jesus’s life and death- are fairly obvious, but no matter how you interpret them, there are a lot of elements that don’t make sense on a literal level but also don’t fit into an overarching metaphor. This is where Mother! lost favor with audiences; it does not make sense. Some people enjoy vague films. Some people don’t. At any rate, it doesn’t really appeal to mainstream tastes, and it’s poor audience reviews (currently a 46% audience approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes) reflect this.
On a technical level, it’s very well-executed, making great use of its confined setting and limited cast. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem steal the show as the unnamed married couple whose relationship deteriorates as the guests drive them farther and farther apart. Mother! is as much a character study as anything else, and incredible performances by the two lead actors keep the film somewhat grounded in its realism despite the utterly insane events transpiring around them (Jennifer Lawrence screams so much that she supposedly tore her diaphragm while shooting). The cinematography, despite its surrealism, is excellent; the film is powerful in its depiction of destruction, yet it balances the chaos with beautiful imagery (one of my favorites being the opening shot of a dirty pair of hands holding a crystal). The film is also incredibly detailed; if you choose to interpret it as a biblical allegory, some of the visual flourishes are impressively subtle yet intentional. The one thing that seems out of place is the jump scares; while effective, they are wholly unnecessary since they occur in scenes that aren’t supposed to be scary and don’t really make sense in the context of the plot. In one scene, Javier Bardem appears suddenly behind Jennifer Lawrence, making her jump; it’s a very effective scare but it doesn’t serve any ostensible purpose, especially considering that the viewer is never led to perceive Javier Bardem as bad or scary. There are also some shots that, while seemingly very intentional, make the viewer dizzy or nauseous. In many scenes, Jennifer Lawrence walks up and down the stairs, and the camera moves smoothly while her head bobs up and down in the shot. Alternately, she sometimes walks through different rooms and the camera follows her in a circle. These camera tricks are disorienting, but one could argue that disorientation is the goal.
Mother! defies all classification. It is listed as “horror” on IMDB, but it tries to disturb more than scare. The fact that it was marketed as a conventional horror or psychological thriller might account for the number of people frustrated with it. Maybe it was intentionally misleading because it’s difficult to advertise a movie without an apparent plot, or maybe because it’s so bizarre that mainstream viewers wouldn’t pay to see it for what it is. Granted, it’s an Aronofsky film; expecting anything conventional would be foolish after Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream.
It’s impossible to definitively say that anyone should or shouldn’t see Mother! since it’s polarizing and only appeals to very specific tastes. As a whole, I think the best way to describe the film would be a violent, disturbing cross between Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby whose screenwriter is clearly quite high, yet whose director somehow arranges the nonsense into some form of artistic organized chaos. If you like metaphorical art films, you might consider giving it a try. If not, Mother! is probably not the movie for you.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Genres: Drama, Horror, Mystery & Suspense
Runtime: 115 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Release Date: Sept 15, 2017