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Non-Review Review: mother!

mother! is a vicious and visceral parable.

For all its flaws, mother! is never less than compelling. It is an ambitious piece of work, a piece of filmmaking that really knows what it wants and really goes for it, with little regard for the audience’s comfort or for the conventions of storytelling. mother! is an absurdist and surrealist narrative, one that makes no apologies for its more bizarre twists or brazen brutality. Aronofsky has conceded that he wrote the first draft of mother! in ten days, a much shorter turnaround than most of his films. It shows in the best possible way, with mother! feeling like a gonzo fever dream.

There are problems, to be fair. mother! is probably strongest in its opening acts, when it is still structured as a mystery to the audience, when the uncanny aspects of the script are creeping in around the edge of the narrative and the story supports any number of allegorical interpretations. This otherworldliness carries over to the second half, when it is paired with an intensity and momentum that prevents mother! from ever completely losing its footing. At the same time, the conclusion feels overly literal and blunt, sacrificing ambiguity for purity of vision.

While this is a serious enough flaw from a narrative perspective, it is hard to complain too much. mother! is energetic and invigourating, brash and bold. It is a movie that feels completely and utterly unlike a relatively high-profile mainstream cinematic release, the studio committing wholeheartedly to Aronofsky’s vision in a manner that is never less than endearing. mother! is pure and unfiltered Aronofsky, with the flavour only overwhelming in the final third.

It is tempting to describe mother! as something akin to an existential mystery. It is a film that provides its audience with little by the way of introductory context, and begins gradually building up information and interpretations as it goes. The basic plot of the film focuses on a couple living in a remote house. The man is a tortured artistic genius, a novelist who wrote one great book and is desperately looking for a sophomoric success. The woman has devoted herself to making the home a place worth living, despite her companion’s disinterest.

As mother! continues, the outside world repeatedly intrudes into this seemingly isolated and remote homestead. The man seems glad of the company, happy to give these strangers refuge. The woman seems more uncomfortable, worrying about the state of the house that they have built. mother! approaches the story from the perspective of its female lead. There is some implication that the female lead is just as disoriented as the audience, just as curious about what is really going on involving her lover.

Aronofsky skillfully emphasises this sense of weirdness and isolation. Aronofsky builds the film around three core types of shot; frequently framing the action over his female lead’s shoulder, from her perspective, or studiously taking in her reaction in a tight head-on shot. Other characters frequently lurk just out of shot, whispers echoing on the soundtrack. Even when the camera follows other characters, it still revolves around its protagonist. The result is to literally put the audience in the headspace of his female lead, inviting them to take the action in through her eyes. Jennifer Lawrence provides a compelling protagonist, even with minimal context.

In these early scenes, mother! seems to toy with the audience, offering any number of intriguing possible readings. Is mother! a more conventional horror movie take on a concept like Passengers, right down to casting Jennifer Lawrence? Is mother! a two-hour apology from a former husband to an ex-wife? Is mother! the story of artistic creation, and the horrors that underpin it? Is mother! an environmental fable? Is mother! a religious parable? In its opening hour, it has the potential to be any of these things and more. It is overflowing with possibilities.

However, as mother! continues, it embraces a number of these core possibilities and just runs with them. It follows these ideas well past the point of ambiguity or nuance, hammering them home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The heavy emphasis that mother! places on the reveals in its final third only underscores the vague disappointment of such an approach. The ending of mother! seems to reduce the film to a puzzle to be solved, which undoubtedly will disappoint those audience members who latch on to the right ideas in the opening half-hour.

At the same time, it is hard to be too critical of mother! The movie is an endearingly odd piece of work. While the film is overly literal in its final third, this commitment to its core themes is intoxicating. mother! is a film that moves with the momentum of a runaway freight train, barrelling through sequences and twists that would be enough to sustain an entire two-hour films. Aronofsky has an eye for imagery, with mother! throwing one striking image at the audience after another.

There are points at which these images flow so rapidly that they land like a series of gut punches. It conjures up the notion of the “superliminal”, ideas that flash by so quickly and yet so loudly that the audience is left reeling. These blows can become exhausting once the audience figures out into which corner the movie is trying to force them, but they land with enough frequency that the movie retains its intoxicating thrill even as these beats come to feel inevitable rather than uncanny.

mother! is a delightful odd mainstream cinematic release, a movie getting a big push with such an outlandish and uncompromising style and tone. mother! is unadulterated and uncompromising Aronofsky, a movie that never blinks and never takes its eye off the prize. While this single-minded determination undercuts the final third somewhat, the movie is never less than exhilarating. There are points at which mother! bangs the same drum with a little too much intensity, but there’s no denying that the tune is infectious.

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