It is always amusing when a film somehow manages to generate a wave of rhetoric and faux outrage upon release and few have had such a polarising effect on audiences in recent times than this latest offering from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream). Some of the commentary has bordered on the hysterical and there seems to be a belief among many (including critics who should know better) that the quality of a film (and this film in particular) must be judged more on how it makes you feel than how technically and artistically accomplished it may be. Hating Mother, or any other film, for whatever reason doesn’t mean that the film is somehow diminished as a work of art. After all, no artist has an obligation to produce work that makes the audience feel good and to assess the worth of a work on such a basis seems devoid of logic. Although Mother is populated by vile characters engaging in all manner of hedonistic debauchery that may leave some people feeling decidedly uncomfortable, and perhaps even somewhat discombobulated, the film is an impressive piece of work. Is it Aranofsky’s best? No. Is it better than most of the cookie-cutter claptrap coming out of Hollywood? Absolutely!
Interestingly, all of the grotesquery that pervades the film is seemingly drawn from the stories and characters of the bible, from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel and Ash Wednesday, with the most obvious allegorical element being Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as either Gaia (Mother Earth) or the Virgin Mary, depending on your interpretation. Bardem, whose character is only ever identified as Him, is a revered poet struggling with writer’s block, while Lawrence’s Mother is his much younger wife who possesses an almost Stepford-like devotion to the house they share. When strangers Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) – ostensibly Adam and Eve – arrive at the doorstep and are invited to stay by Him, tensions mount as the houseguests go beyond boorish and brazen in their disdain for Mother. Harris looks suitably gaunt for a man battling an unspecified illness, while Pfeiffer has never been this nasty on screen before and it is good to see her play a character who goes beyond self-absorbed, taking nastiness to a whole new level. Needless to say, they are unable to resist the temptations that lurk in the writer’s study (the Garden of Eden?) and there are no surprises for guessing what happens when their two sons (played by real life siblings Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and a fight ensues. If you think this gives too much away, you are very much mistaken because none of this prepares you what happens through the second half of the film.
Mother is highly stylised and has been decried by some as pretentious and self-indulgent, but I’m not sure that such accusations are reasonable. Despite the $30 million budget, it seems unlikely that Aronofsky was ever expecting this to attract a mainstream audience in large numbers, although he may well have convinced the studio backers otherwise. It is an audacious film and, to their credit, the various performers seem to have given their all in the name of realising Aronofsky’s unique vision, which seems to also take aim at contemporary issues such as the cult of celebrity and the expectation that the famous must forgo their rights to privacy and dignity in the service of the mob who feel they are owed for their devotion.
The labyrinthine house is a character in itself, a mysterious bleeding hole in the floor open to all manner of interpretation. The film draws from horror tropes (isolated location, home invaders, hidden basement rooms) but could never be considered a horror film as such. There is plenty of disturbing moments to be sure, but Mother is most frightening in what it has to say about the perils of idolatry in all its forms. This is a perverse, powerful, prescient piece of work from a filmmaker who has a history of delving into the darker recesses of humanity (obsession, addiction, physical and psychological collapse), all of which are on display in abundance here.