I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever attended a screening with an audience so palpably frustrated as the small crowd with which I shared my first experience of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! I say “first experience” because a) I’m going to have to see it again, and b) the film is definitely an experience, more ordeal than idle entertainment. For some — OK, many — that may be enough to dissuade any further interest. It certainly proved to be too much for the half-dozen walkouts I witnessed at my screening. But for those who are willing to dig for meaning and forgo all expectations of easy answers, mother! may well prove to be Aronofsky’s masterpiece.
In light of the film’s current “F” rating on CinemaScore, I feel the need to belabor the obvious point: mother! is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t like Buñuel or Jodorowsky, you’re going to hate this movie. If you’re looking for the Aronofsky of The Wrestler or Requiem for a Dream, you’re going to hate this movie. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I loved it.
This is Aronofsky in the mode of The Fountain or Noah, both of which were similarly divisive with critics and audiences — and as was the case in those films, the point here isn’t so much story as myth. Specifically, mother! functions as a Gnostic allegory, less explicit in its antecedents than Noah, more directly Judeo-Christian than The Fountain. Intimate knowledge of Greco-Egyptian Hermeticism and Neoplatonism or Lurianic Kabbalah are not prerequisite to getting what Aronofsky’s on about, but it definitely helps. In layman’s terms, and not to put too fine a point on it, this film is about the role of the Sacred Feminine in esoteric cosmology — and not in some lazy Dan Brown sense. It’s an important work, and I’m glad somebody’s doing it.
The writer/director has insisted on audiences seeing the film with as little advance knowledge of its workings as possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him (realistically, I’ve said too much already). To that end, I’m only going to offer up the barest of bones in terms of plot synopsis — which should be sufficient, because getting too hung up on traditional narrative will do you absolutely no favors with this one. Jennifer Lawrence plays an unnamed woman, Javier Bardem her unnamed husband. They share an idyllic existence, with her restoring their farmhouse while he struggles with his poetry in total isolation. Isolated, that is, until Ed Harris shows up. And then his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. And then their feuding sons, Brian and Domhnall Gleason. And then … a bunch of people. That’s it, that’s all you’re getting out of me.
The cast is uniformly exceptional, and I don’t have the room here to grant them the accolades they deserve. The filmmaking is, from a technical and stylistic perspective, perhaps the best of Aronofsky’s career. It bears the mark of influences ranging from Eraserhead to Rosemary’s Baby, though it’s about Motherhood rather than motherhood. But trying to assess the mechanics of a film like this, a work that’s so much more than the sum of its constituent parts, would be tantamount to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. mother! is a trial by fire, and in the alchemical sense of that phrase, you’ll come out the other end transformed. Unless you show up late and only stay for 30 minutes like the 20somethings who sat next to me. Seriously, don’t do that.