If there were a competition to find the ‘Master of Abjection’, Darren Aronofsky would be a sure-fire candidate, if not the clear winner. He gave us a disturbing exploration into substance addiction in Requiem for a Dream and then a chilling look at psychological fragility in Black Swan, and now there’s a new creepy kid on the block: mother!
Set in a secluded house in a woodland clearing, the film tells the disturbing story of a poet (Javier Bardem) with severe writer’s block and his neglected wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who has spent her time transforming the entire house from a burnt husk to a beautiful home. One day a man comes to them asking for a room and the poet agrees. He is soon joined by his wife and the two behave in a way that delights the poet, but disrupts the wife’s calm household. Things quickly begin to spiral out of the wife’s control and soon it’s not just the household that is falling apart, but herself with it.
Imagine all the terrifying scenes of the extreme placed under one crumbling roof: that is mother!. It proves to be a hard film to discuss, as there are many ways that you can interpret it as well as some scenes that are just so strange and horrifying that you cannot even begin to think what they might mean. But it’s clear that the strongest underlying theme is one of religion and the abuse of Mother Earth. Bardem’s character represents a creator or God, Pfeiffer and Harris are man and woman (Adam and Eve) and their two sons (played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) are a clear reference to Cain and Abel. A few chilling and confronting scenes depicting violence done in the name of, plus mass worship of the poet inside his own home during the third act hammers home those themes.
In a sense, the film is quite cleverly written in that it does not rely on dialogue to explain the plot to the audience. It’s a very visual film, with the actions of the characters and the mise-en-scene working to tell the story while the dialogue is merely part of the narrative world, not so much the narrative itself. Close-ups, point-of-view camera angles, and intense sound design are the nails in the coffin; keeping you in your seat, unable to escape even when you desperately want to. There is also a distinct lack of an orchestral soundtrack, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which highlights the horror and strangeness of each scene further. P.S. If you’re a fan of gothic literature, there are a few things in here that are very reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
mother! is a loaded movie, using every weapon at its disposal: excellent sound design, great use of mise-en-scene, and good, solid performances. But I will say that’s it’s not for the faint-hearted, and it’s definitely not in the business of making friends: indeed the experience of watching this movie is one of discomfort, agitation, and horror.