Only twice have I left a movie theater feeling intensely altered by the experience. The first film was Room. I walked out of the 2015 Brie Larson drama in a haze: warmth radiated from the red theater carpets, and the soft glow of light reflecting off of hung movie posters pirouetted across my vision. Walking with the herd towards our cars, I was comforted and awed by humanity.
The second film to do so was mother!, and for the polar opposite reason. I left Darren Aronofsky’s two-hour psychological horror (?) film overcome with skittish paranoia. The sound of the two boys chattering next to me at the traffic light was anxiety–inducing. I darted my eyes towards the bark of a dog across the street, then back towards the beep of a car horn coming from the other direction. A middle–aged woman walking towards me on Walnut suddenly felt sinister. Something was off; it felt like I had entered an unkind parallel world. That world I experienced in the fleeting minutes after the credits rolled is the same world our protagonist, mother (played by Jennifer Lawrence), inhabits throughout this film.
A couple, named Him (Javier Bardem) and mother (these names hold significance, and the capitalization isn’t a typo), live in a creaky mansion in the middle of nowhere; their placid lives are turned upside down with the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Bardem’s character is oddly hospitable, and mother can’t help but shake the feeling that something is off. It’s nearly impossible to go deeper into this movie without spoiling, and to spoil this movie would be to rob you of a harrowing, nerve–wracking theater–going experience.
On a technical level, very few films use sound design as well as mother! does. The cacophonous frenzy of creaks, footsteps, conversation, and clatters are blended impeccably together, creating an atmosphere of all–out chaos. The tight cinematography and set pieces are magnificent, and the score uses staccato beats to masterfully ratchet up the tension. The camera orbits mother’s expressive, often–horrified face as her world crumbles right in front of her, and it feels like ours is crumbling too. Lawrence delivers an all–encompassing apocalyptic performance—she has certainly never been better. (Ed. note: Can we pretend her questionable Silver Linings Playbook Oscar actually went to this performance?)
mother! is a two-hour panic attack communicated through visual language. Every element of the production is working to make the viewer feel as uneasy as possible. This makes it clear that Aronofsky is not trying to make the populist hit of the decade here—after a particularly disturbing scene, I could almost feel the people in the theater consider walking out. It’s impossible to be anything less than stunned when the credits begin to roll. Countless interpretations of the film are valid, and Aronofsky has come out and said exactly what the film means, but few critics are talking about the glaring male–female relationship at mother!’s center. Aronofsky may not have intended this, but he has crafted a very clear (perhaps meta–critical) story about gender, the male ego, and the role of the “artist”. To delve a little deeper into this idea, please hold for some spoilers:
SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILERS! YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!
The entire story arc can be interpreted as Him’s artistic endeavors being representative of the male ego: the need to create, be dominant, and—most importantly—be praised. The fans of Him’s work can also be interpreted as facets of the male psyche. Michelle Pfeiffer’s icy, hypersexual character (credited as “woman”) is a textbook manifestation of the male gaze, while the explosive fight between the two brothers reflects aspects of violent masculinity. The countless devotees of Him, who completely stampede through the final act of the film, reflect back on the male ego. Him is obsessed with being exalted—having people listen to him. At one point, mother begs Him to banish these strangers from their home, and he growls, “I don’t want them to leave!” His self–importance completely overrides mother, culminating in her manic monologue where she shrieks, “I gave you everything!” Men are encouraged to take; women are expected to give. Now, mother herself can represent whatever you want (women as a whole, feminine energy, the world), but her complete powerlessness in the confines of Him’s world is very telling regardless.
END OF SPOILERS!!
If this review seems a bit scattered, it’s because this movie absolutely scrambles your brain. To put mother! into words is to completely bastardize the process of viewing the film. You simply have to experience it firsthand to understand. Unfortunately, this movie is tanking. The esoteric pretensions of the marketing combined with the public’s sudden 180 on Jennifer Lawrence’s persona have prompted a massive box office failure. But please, please see mother! You may not enjoy it: in fact you might leave utterly appalled. However, there is no film like it, and big–studio art house movies need to be supported, or the suited–up old men in L.A. board rooms will avoid them at all costs, opting instead for an easily digestible 10th Transformers movie. mother! is not easily digestible. mother! doesn’t merely defy genre convention, it defies genre as a whole. It is a singular creation that will yank you deep into its insane world—and it does not let go.