Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, Ed Harris, Hunger Games, Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss Everdeen, Matthew Libatique, Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler
Jennifer Lawrence comes of age. Jennifer Lawrence escapes the Katniss Everdeen label she acquired in the highly successful Hunger Games trilogy. Jennifer Lawrence finally has on-screen staircase-and-into-the-bedroom sex; reveals her breasts (almost—they may not be hers); uses the f-word, twice; and, as is nowadays mandatory in movies, is called a whore c-word by one of her attackers. Yes, I have just watched mother! (lower-case m, exclamation mark), a remarkable film by avant-garde director, Darren Aronofsky. You may not be familiar with the name Darren Aronofsky but he has directed some strange and disturbing films in the past: Requiem for a Dream (a film about drug addiction), Black Swan (the quest for artistic perfection offset by professional rivalries in the world of classical ballet), Noah (Aronofsky’s controversial view of the biblical story of Noah and The Flood), The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke’s acting renaissance), and more.
mother! is billed as a psychological horror movie but it’s more than this. It’s an allegory of how God (played as HIM by Javier Bardem) created the world based on a seemingly loving relationship with Mother Earth (played by Jennifer Lawrence as mother) followed by the introduction of man/Adam (Ed Harris in fine form), woman/Eve (Michelle Pfeiffer showing her age, and considerable acting skills), their sons older son/Cain and younger son/Abel, and, subsequently, a host of followers, worshippers, zealots, fanatics, heralds, cupbearers and many others who subscribe in some way to the worshipping of HIM.
At a simple level, mother! is a home invasion movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s mother character struggles to create the perfect home for her husband, HIM, and is perplexed when HIM invites strangers into their home who then proceed to break the rules (no smoking inside the house, shut the bedroom door before having sex, and so on) and in a frightening climax, ultimately destroy the house, its contents, and, finally, her newborn baby boy who is sacrificed so that the invaders may partake of his flesh. No prizes for guessing who that might be.
I’ve watched all three Hunger Games movies (released between 2012 and 2015). They were what are known as young adult movies but Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland added extra dimensions of maturity, thus appealing to more adult viewers. But, the question arose: where does Jennifer Lawrence go from here? She was clearly an actress of talent but how could she cast off the Katniss Everdeen label? She tried. I watched her in two post Hunger Games movies: X-Men: Apocalypse (another young adult film) and the more serious sci-fi movie, Passengers, but neither movie truly showcased her acting talents. mother! does. The way she reacts to the people invading and violating her home demonstrates her facial skills at registering perplexity, confusion, hidden anger, and eventually pain, mental and physical. Matthew Libatique, the principal cinematographer who has worked with Aronofsky on previous movies, films almost every shot in intense close-up, switching rapidly from one speaker to another as indeed we do when conversing in a social group. (This style of film creation is known as hip-hop montage.) We see HIM say something unexpected and immediately see a reaction from mother, first facial, second verbal. The timing is perfectly aligned with our own feelings as we watch the scene.
There is horror in the movie but mostly it’s the sort of horror you would expect from a mother who suddenly realises her child is no longer swinging on the swing or sliding down the slide in the playground and can no longer be seen among the other children and parents present. Towards the end of the movie, the horror becomes physical and it’s here that the cinematographic skills of Libatique excel as his camera follows mother as she tries to escape the attention of the fanatical horde who have invaded her house. Lawrence performs well here; her face, her body, and her reactions all playing to the situation she finds herself in after losing her new-born baby. There is horrific violence but we, the viewers, are constantly reminded that this is the violence born of religious zeal, of fanaticism, of unquestionable awe at a superbeing.
Make no mistake; this is Lawrence’s film. The main supporting actors—Javier Bardem (HIM), Ed Harris (man/Adam) and Michelle Pfeiffer (woman/Eve)—all play their roles to the hilt and without fault, but mother! unveils and unleashes Lawrence’s acting talents way above the physicality she displayed in the Hunger Games movies. mother! is a tough film to watch. You will become frustrated at mother’s restraint and compliance with HIM’s obviously growing enjoyment at being hero-worshipped. HIM is on a massive ego trip. You will want to kick man/Adam and woman/Eve out of the house before they take over. You will avert your eyes at the harrowing birth scene. You will become immersed in the subsequent chase through the house as mother discovers her baby has been taken from her by HIM and sacrificed by the mob, and wishes to escape from the subsequent madness that ensues. But, you will not want to stop watching until the credits roll.
This is great film-making, and very different to Dunkirk, which I have also recently watched. Dunkirk told a story, re-enacted an event, albeit with off-putting time jumps. mother! displays the effects of unconstrained worship and parallels the biblical story of God the Creator and subsequent growth of schisms resulting in violence and savagery on an unprecedented scale. mother! is not a Saturday night popcorn-on-the-sofa movie. It’s a serious attempt to show how self-aggrandisement leads to uncontrollable violence and, ultimately, a total destruction of all that’s been created leading to a rebirth. If you are not familiar with Aronofsky’s films, give this one a shot, and then try some of his earlier movies. You will be rewarded but come away exhausted.
Paul S said:
Mother left me with mixed feelings. I went to see it with a friend, I think she liked it more than I did until we got to talk about it later and once we pieced it together, it’s quite an ambitious, audacious movie. I enjoyed your review!
Ben Bennetts said:
Thanks, Paul. As is my wont, I wrote my review before reading what the critics thought of the movie. Some critics I agreed with; others not, but that is the nature of critical reviewing and I never did get to the bottom of what was in the yellow drink mother kept imbibing. I even tried freezing, screenshotting, and zooming to read the label on the bottle but couldn’t see clearly enough to make out what it was. It’s obviously something that rejuvenates a flagging Mother Earth, some elixir to breathe new life, but what could that be? And why yellow? If you and your friend figured that one out, I would be interested to know your thoughts.
Pingback: Movie Review: The Shining, revisited | Ben's Blogs, Books & Pix