Some movies are focused on plotting. Others are focused on character. mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest, is, instead, focused on a feeling: helplessness. The film centers around a couple living an isolated but seemingly bucolic existence in a beautiful old house. The woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is gradually fixing up the house while her husband, Javier Bardem, struggles to write a follow up to a successful book of poems he published years ago. When they take in a stranger for the night, their world begins to unravel. And boy does it unravel. As the film progresses, we’re presented with increasingly bizarre plot twists accompanied by increasingly grotesque and disturbing imagery. Some will walk out of the film, disgusted by what they’ve witnessed. Others will become fully immersed in the film, and puzzle over its significance for days. No one’s going to be leaving this film without some strong feelings on what they’ve just witnessed.
Anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s work won’t be surprised that the film elicits a strong response. His films have often veered into the realm of nightmare as they struggled to depict challenging topics like addiction and mental illness. Throughout his body of work, Aronofsky has worked to develop a cinematic language for depicting the subjective experiences of characters as they experience psychological issues like paranoia, hallucinations, and depression. His films often feature careful sound design and surreal visuals in an attempt to use the inherently representational nature of live action cinema to portray the realities of people that don’t see things like the rest of us. mother! is no different. In this case, Aronofsky has decided to tackle the headspace of a woman who’s driven insane as she’s buffeted by forces outside of her control. Even as she rages against the progressively more preposterous string of indignities that she’s subjected to, she’s unable to do anything about them.
mother!, being so centered on the subjective experience of a single person, is uniquely dependent on its lead. The camera is focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s face for at least half the movie, capturing the minutest of details. For her part, Lawrence delivers a stellar performance in what must have been a grueling filming process. In a career that’s included some memorable roles, her performance in mother! is, without a doubt, her best so far. Her ability to subtly express a full range of extreme emotions is remarkable, and Aronofsky takes full advantage.
For much of the film, Aronofsky, too, takes full advantage of Lawrence’s performance. By having her face dominate the frame so often, Aronofsky effectively traps the audience with the character and her mental state. As the film grows increasingly chaotic, he intentionally places viewers within the same sense of confusion that Lawrence’s character is experiencing. Instead of relying on traditional establishing shots, for many of the most chaotic scenes, Aronofsky only shows us snippets of the action as the camera turns away from Lawrence for a split second to give us only a glimpse of what’s going on. He leaves the viewer intentionally frustrated, just like Lawrence’s character. In this way, Aronofsky, at times, is highly effective at getting the audience to see the world through the protagonist’s subjective experience. A combination of deft cinematography, sound design, and imagery combine to provide viewers with a window into insanity like none other.
Unfortunately, at times, the film crosses the line into indulgence. Aronofsky is at his best when he grounds the madness of his films in reality. He takes insanity, by definition impossible for a sane person to comprehend, and builds a bridge to it through his movies. The effect is emotional resonance between the audience and a protagonist in the grips of madness. Unfortunately, his love for surreal imagery leads to scenes which demolish this carefully built bridge in favor of symbolism and cinematic flair. At these moments, all the hard work put in by Lawrence to credibly portray her state of mind, crumbles beneath the weight of showy film making.
Many people, Aronofsky included, will talk about the symbolism present in mother!, but trying to puzzle through the meaning of this film is to miss the strengths of this film. Yes, the film does appear to be an allegory exploring modernity and religion and ideology and motherhood and creativity, but it has nothing new to say in those domains. It’s all second-rate rehashing of wiser social commentaries. It’s pretentious. The film, instead, at its heights, is the best entry yet in Aronofsky’s ongoing mission to portray the subjective experience of insanity. He still hasn’t gotten the formula right, but with each release that explores these themes, his film making matures. I have faith that someday Aronofsky will perfect his craft, as long as his ego doesn’t get in the way.