WASHINGTON, October 11, 2017 – There has always been an element of “shock and awe” in Darren Aronofsky’s career trajectory. He’s a filmmaker who routinely manages to place himself all over the map when it comes to his subject manner.
Taken as a pure filmmaker, Aronofsky has primarily been associated with films that trade in gritty realism. But he’s also had experience exploring the fantastic and the paranoid. Whatever genre or subgenre he’s working with, however, all his films draw on a stark common thread of visual and narrative bleakness.
Aronofsky doesn’t merely deal in contrast. Instead, he’s celebrated as a visualist regularly captures the cyclical visual and spiritual bleakness one encounters at various points in life. In fact, like the ocean tides, the never-ending cycles present in Aronofsky’s work makes the bleakness feel permanent and endless in this film. It’s a sense that’s reinforced by the film’s characters. All of them lack proper names, giving the film an existential quality as well.
The world portrayed in Aronofsky’s latest film, “mother!” deftly feeds into all his pet themes. It’s not quite a summation of his career as a filmmaker but in a certain way this film has that feel. The film is entirely cyclical, possessing a “beginning is the end is the beginning” approach that makes it hard to take a long view toward the way the film plays out.
“mother!” doesn’t posses a single, core premise. It begins with the world being re-created by “Him” (Javier Bardem) putting an ornament back on a display as “mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens in bed alone. The opening scene initially has an art film quality. Yet it feels a little too stylized to be merely tangential to the underlying narrative, launching the entire picture into an otherworldly sensory realm.
Mother spends her opening sequence wandering about the newly-renovated house searching for Him, while we get our first look at the surrounding, idyllic countryside. There are no roads, nor any sense of civilization outside of Mother and Him and their house.
That anthropomorphic house soon becomes as much of a character as anything else in the film. It is a work in progress that Mother is putting back together herself while Him works as a writer – or at least attempts to do so.
The crux of the film’s initial problem is that Him is suffering from writer’s block. As if operating in a sympathetic parallel universe, Mother tries to stay out of his way, focus her own energies on reconstructing the house. In this sense, Aronofsky’s film recalls the eerie writer’s block paranoia that animated the Coen Brothers’ surrealistic 1991 cult film, “Barton Fink.”
It’s at this point that the couple is visited by a Man (Ed Harris), who has traveled to their house seemingly from nowhere. We eventually discover he’s a fan of Him. The trio soon becomes a foursome, as they are welcome the arrival of a Woman (Michelle Pfeifer) who’s the wife of the Man. Everything that follows springs from these core characters.
The Man and Woman soon go about inserting themselves in nearly everything Mother is doing. Him is fine with having them, around but Mother is set on edge by their very presence. Soon the Man and Woman’s Sons (Domnhall and Brian Gleason) arrive to discuss the matter of the Man’s will, leading to fight between the sons during which the eldest son murders the younger in what feels like a contemporary counterpart to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Up until this point, “mother!” feels like a weird yet fairly straightforward linear narrative film. But with the death of the youngest Son and the ensuing funeral that’s held in the house, during which more and more people arrive, the linear sense of time spins out of control, paralleled by Mother, who loses her grip on reality.
As the crowd of unwanted guests continues to grow, they all insist on helping Mother, but just end up getting in the way until the Mother snaps. She simultaneously insists that all the unwanted guests leave even as she attacks the weakness of Him, the person responsible for letting them all in to begin with.
Her rage leads to spite sex with Him. The result: Mother learns she’s pregnant, which almost magically allows Him to begin writing for the first time since the film began. As more people show up to read Him’s writing, the house is beset by chaos, with the still-present unwanted guests descending into ever-lower depths of depravity.
In the midst of this chaos, Mother has her child, who is soon dispatched by the mob, which then assaults Mother who, as if to complete the cycle, retaliates by burning down the house.
(Spoiler alert: It’s at this point that Him reveals to Mother that he is God – taking her heart and forming it into the ornament we briefly glimpsed at the beginning of the film. The cycle is thus reset, ready to begin again.)
One of the issues with discussing an Aronofsky film is that the surface details of his narratives seem also to serve directly as the film’s thematic purpose. He never really digs deeper than what he can see. The clear though highly stylized and distorted linkages to Genesis and the Creation story (distorted though they are), that form the subtext of the film become one with the visual text, resulting in a film that ultimately lacks subtlety.
If you read our earlier spoiler alert concerning the true nature of Him, and/or actually saw this film, you would likely agree that what the film ultimately reveals is a rather open secret from the very opening scenes. Without proper names, the characters clearly serve as allegorical stand-ins for whatever or whomever they represent. That representation seamlessly becomes a stand-in for characterization.
Aronofsky, in fact, very deliberately wants his audience to know that “mother!” is a religious allegory from the start. Aronofsky deploys his own unique take on this allegory to make an overall statement about the brutality mankind inflicts on nearly the entirety of existence – the house – as well as on the Mother who brought them into existence.
There’s also nothing to suggest this won’t happen again, as the Mother and Him have gone through this same dance of death before. Cue the director’s ongoing obsession with his uniquely bleak, dystopic vision.
The issue with trying to capture so much allegory visually is that underneath it all, there’s a relative lack of depth. There’s no specific moment this allegory is trying to capture. Instead, Aronofsky paints his gloomy Futureworld in broad strokes, leading a general lack of focus in this film.
“mother!” starts out well enough, remaining on track when it’s focusing on the four initial characters. But the visual and psychological narrative falls apart when time – within the created universe and the film – loses most of its meaning. When time falls apart, so too does its narrative direction.
“ mother!” never seems to have more ambition than to demonstrate mankind’s savagery, particularly as it involves the allegorical Mother of the human race. But it’s also hard to sympathize with the Mother because she’s so clearly and manipulatively set up to die by the conclusion of the film. Telegraphed from the very beginning, this cyclical pattern ends up merely fueling some shallow, vaguely nihilistic ideology known only to Aronofsky.
Nothing in “mother!” is built. Everything that exists is simply destroyed, which is one of the larger points of the film, which merely exists to devour itself. Aronofsky isn’t really trying to show the audience anything new with “mother!”
As in contemporary Hollywood, nothing is real or fully built, save for hollow scenery, all of which is ultimately left unfinished before it’s burned down to start over with another impermanent fable.
This much talked about film has been a major bomb at the box office since its release, and there’s good reason for this: The hollowness of “mother!’s” creation feels like a summation of Aronofsky’s entire career.