Mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017) 1 out of 4 stars.
The problem with Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! lies not in its use of allegory to tackle existential challenges of the human condition, nor in its fanciful approach to the circular design of its narrative. There is nothing wrong with metaphor and whimsy. Here, though, both are applied in such forcefully clumsy ways, erasing meaningful dramatic intrigue through abrasive artificiality, that all one can do is watch from a distance, occasionally interested, most other times repelled, but at no moment engaged. We are outside observers in the director’s “pas seul,” and this solo act of artistic self-gratification quickly devolves into tired and obvious constructs, this despite the presence of some very fine actors, the standouts among them Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Michelle Pfeiffer (People Like Us).
We begin on what we will soon guess are Lawrence’s eyes in close-up, the surrounding skin blistering in white-hot flames. Aronofsky will continue to focus our gaze on these eyes throughout, often to the exclusion of other details, forcing our attention on her character in every scene, though we never get the expected payoff from such set-up. She’s the (much younger) wife of Javier Bardem (Skyfall), a poet trapped in the long dry spell of never-ending writer’s block. Is that opening conflagration a symbol of his bursting creativity, consuming the withered tinder of his heretofore desiccated output as fuel for a new opus? In fact, yes, that’s exactly what it is, and Aronofsky gives the game away in the first minute, after which he never regains his cinematic balance to, himself, create anything quite as compelling as that first sequence. Call it director’s block.
For sure, Aronofsky (Noah) feels otherwise, as he has made clear in statements, apologizing at the recent Toronto Film Festival for “what he [was] about to do” to the audience. Taking art seriously is one thing, but it’s dangerous for any artist to believe their own hype. Mother! would be less of an unpleasant bore if we didn’t sense, at every turn, the director’s self-regard. I have long admired his work, even when the individual films may have left me less than impressed, because of his strong visuals and way with actors, and both of those strengths are on full display here. But the underlying story, which never progresses beyond the trick of its creation allegory, leaves us cold. Never has fire felt so frigid.
The story, such as it is, follows first Lawrence and Bardem as the former strives to keep house and the latter to write, and then the increasing hordes of guests, among them Pfeiffer and Ed Harris (Snowpiercer) who arrive to shatter the would-be romantic idyll. Every character has an agenda, often in conflict with our protagonists, always behaving as if an invisible hand (Bardem’s? Aronofsky’s? One and the same?) pulls their strings. Once we understand the overall dynamic, it’s hard to feel much emotion about the proceedings.
Until the end, when the gathering mayhem of earlier scenes explodes in an orgy of violence that finally managed to provoke something in me beyond indifference: repulsion. And while carnage can be an effective dramatic tool, the gratuitous kind – staged here so obviously to shock – is just torture porn. I kept on waiting for the movie to be more than the sum of its clearly defined parts, and for all the ennui and disgust to amount to more than the opening metaphor, but I was always disappointed, and remain so days after the screening. I should have known: with its desperate – would that it were ironic – titular exclamation point, Aronofsky announces nothing more than bombast, and delivers exactly on that promise.