Hell is other people
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the ending.
Few movies that utilise a titular exclamation mark have earned such punctuation but for Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! it looks a lot like understatement. He’s created a gourmet horror movie – part domestic phantasmagoria, part riff on Rosemary’s Baby, all uncanny allegory. But an allegory about what? If you’re so inclined, perhaps being a big picture sort of fellow, you can read it as an attack on religion’s subjugating tendency, but that’s a little turgid in this secular age. For this reviewer’s money, Aronofsky goes narrower and deeper, launching a berserker attack on the collateral, i.e. familial damage, wrought in the wake of creative industry self-indulgence and adulation seeking; the unreality the fragile narcissist generates around themselves, the people they hold close and destroy. Not a repudiation of God then, but the God Complex.
Of course it’s hard to understand how Aronofsky found inspiration amongst the creative community, but against all odds his cruel and pitiless story acquired a touchstone. Was Aronofsky thinking of Sophia Tolstaya? Sharon Tate? Cynthia Lennon? Or just an old girlfriend he let down on the way up? Following Mother! he’s dating Jennifer Lawrence. She’s a braver man than I.
Aronofsky’s onscreen treatment of his new squeeze problematises its feminist credentials, but if one’s minded to see past Lawrence being brutally beaten, labelled a cunt (twice), and reduced to a charred husk, there’s a perverse cold logic to her ordeal that contrasts her selfless, adulating love for older man Javier Bardem, and her personal investment in home and hearth – here a proxy for identity and peace of mind, with Bardem’s neglect, brooding fecklessness and indifference to her emotional wellbeing.
As Lawrence’s pet project – a restoration of her man’s burned out home, and foundation for their relationship, is probed and invaded by unwanted guests – initially Bardem acolyte Ed Harris and his vampish wife Michelle Pfeiffer, later the world and its mother (!), it’s apparent she’s a prisoner of events, the house, and the psychological tumult generated therein. Her psyche and the condition of her built environment are inextricably intertwined. An active woman is reduced to a passive spectator in her own life.
We’re used to seeing horror centred on home invasion, but seldom has the mere presence of unwanted and obnoxious house guests, maddeningly contemptuous of Lawrence, induced such sustained tension and palpable dread. Mother! layers menace with tight framing – following Lawrence’s point of view in close up, ear bleeding foley and the grainy unreality of 16mm film, the way Rick and Morty twists the dial on comic absurdism. The scenario’s in turn unsettling, perverse, infuriating and insane – but it’s rich in sympathy for a woman who aspires to family life and emotional intimacy, if you’re down with that, only to see it all undone by Bardem’s incessant, selfish need for external validation. “I don’t want them to go” he tells his broken beau. We never imagined he did.
Essentially, Mother! is a movie built around the question many women have asked of their partners, namely, why am I not enough? There are fantasy elements at play that make the true identity of Bardem difficult to discern, though atheists will tell you his capricious and sociopathic bent in no way disqualifies him from being a depiction of a deity, but Mother! works best when seen through the prism of ego’s cannibalising tendency on those more self-effacing and generous of spirit.
The onslaught depicted here, not to mention the structuring conceit that only reveals itself at the movie’s conclusion, suggests Aronofsky had in mind the kind of attention invited by celebrity, required to sustain it, that makes mincemeat of those caught in its unnatural wake – the invasion of privacy, unwanted criticism and judgement from strangers, unbearable scrutiny, the crossing of personal boundaries, the assumption you’re public property, and perhaps, most sinisterly of all, the effect on any child. It’s a safe bet this won’t make Brad Pitt’s top ten of the year.
But what makes Mother! a true horror movie, perhaps one of the most effective made for many years, is the power dynamic it meticulously constructs and critiques. Lawrence’s character is a slave to her husband’s desires, aspirations and emotional needs. The conclusion, which will anger some but is inevitable given the story’s cyclical nature, doubles down on this nightmare scenario, gifting Bardem the love of the woman he’s destroyed in trophy form, which allays his guilt, absolves him of responsibility, and gives him the means to do it all over again with a fresh vessel. It’s a movie in which the parasitic narcissist endures at the expense of a selfless, put upon supplicant. It’s not every day you can show your God-fearing friends and selfish boyfriend a film they’ll both find uncomfortable. Such rarities must not be ignored.