REVIEW: mother! (2017)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Running time: 121 minutes

4-stars

An unnamed couple live in a large, remote house. He (Bardem) is a poet suffering from severe writer’s block. She (Lawrence) spends her days restoring the house and attending to every domestic task in the book. One night, a stranger (Harris) turns up on their doorstep thinking it is a B&B. When her husband invites him – and later his wife (Pfeiffer) – to stay, it becomes apparent that they may have let something far worse into their lives…

Like football worshippers up and down the country every Saturday afternoon, we can imagine Darren Aronofsky sitting back in his chair at the end of his mother! premiere exhaling the words “’ave some of that”. But unlike those who descend en masse to London Stadium each week (Aronofsky may well not be a Hammer – he could be an Arsenal fan; but then again, not being one for predictability, he’s probably not), the ‘that’ isn’t so much an Andy Carroll bicycle kick, as much as it is a gorgeous, daring, unsettling, suggestive cinematic beast that is sure to make the film pundits get all fisty-cuffs with one another over it.

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mother! is a rare thing. Very much 2017’s answer to 2016’s The Neon Demon, Aronofsky’s film is a lethal cocktail laced with allegory, and spiked with controversy. And at the centre of this metaphorical Molotov is Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist; glaring, shrieking, and weeping her way through the full spectrum of emotions. Unnamed throughout, like every other player in Aronofsky’s richly emblematic melting pot, the camera tracks her every movement, viewpoint, and expression as we map both the unnervingly spacious structure she finds herself in, and the recesses of her increasingly unstable psychological state.

After the subdued opening exchanges that we’re never quite at ease with, a seemingly peaceful, tranquil existence is infiltrated – quite literally – by the arrival of a couple of strangers late at night. And while those alarm bells quickly start to chime, Aronofksy takes pride in his fractured characterisation and his plethora of seemingly endless narrative ellipsis. Those around Lawrence – the Bardems, Harris’ and Pfeiffers – are increasingly fed to us at arms-length, cards firmly held against chest. Restricted exclusively to the confinements of the large home, our omniscient viewer privileges are never granted, and we are allowed access only to what Lawrence’s character sees. As a result, doors are often left closed, characters come and go with little explanation, and hushed conversations occur just out of ear shot. Despite the vastness of its single setting, mother! quickly begins to feel awfully claustrophobic, and impressively uncomfortable, before the paranoia starts to slowly kick in. This is very much a film designed to be felt first, and understood second.

And then comes mother!’s more straight-up horror elements. With episodes that wouldn’t look out of place in The Conjurings and Insideouses of this world, floor boards bleed, walls momentarily appear charred and blackened, and the screeching taps could easily be misheard as high-pitch screams. There’s terror all up in here, as shades of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and early Romero give subtle colouring to the largely original pallet Aronofsky is working from here. Harris and Pfeiffer certainly add their two cents with impressively creepy turns, and we’re so used to seeing Bardem clad in villainy it’s hard for us to shake our suspicions. But it is Lawrence, boldly delving into uncharted career territory here, who offers the most striking performance of them all. Throwing her weight about – both figuratively and literally – her portrayal of a woman imprisoned in her very own nightmare is as physical as it is psychological, excessive as it is affecting. A nightmare for one quickly becomes a nightmare for all.

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And yet, this is a work undoubtedly driven by the mind and eye of its skipper. Aronofksy’s film is soaked in religious allegory, with nods to History, creativity, and the media cropping up in increasingly outlandish and daring forms. They’ll be times when you’ll be baffled, times when you’ll be enthralled, and times – during one sequence during the film’s all out madhouse finale – when you’ll be wholeheartedly, jaw-droppingly disgusted.

Needless to say, some will love it, others will loathe it. Either way, Aronofsky’s mother! will have had a profound effect on you. Go in knowing as little about it as possible, and you’ll wander out with more than enough to chew away at your brain for days to come. You’ll do well to find a more unnerving, layered, and divisive work to hit mainstream cinema this year. mother! – more like mother?

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