mother! – movie review

by James Robins / 30 September, 2017
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This discomforting psychological thriller defies description.

It’s not apparent in the opening act of mother! just what that imperious exclamation mark is for. We are introduced to the seemingly tranquil lives of a nameless couple who live in a gorgeous rustic house on verdant grounds. She (Jennifer Lawrence) is a homemaker, doting and untroubled. He (Javier Bardem) is a poet whose creative juices have dried up.

The sky is of clearest blue, but the mood is defiantly chilly. The silence is unnerving as you watch Lawrence patter along corridors with creaking floorboards and into empty rooms. The heavy doors of this house seem to exhale as they’re closed. When Lawrence presses an ear to the plastered walls, a heartbeat reverberates. We’re bound tightly to her, to her porcelain features and quivering bottom lip.

The camera barely strays from her face or perspective, so that when an unannounced guest (Ed Harris) arrives and spends the night, we look to her for answers and find only confusion and disbelief. The guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon appears, too, attempting to impose her will on the house and upset its precarious balance.

What is all this for? You squirm with unease, not because what you’re seeing is impossibly discomforting, but because of the uncertainty of where these people are headed and the collisions that may result.

The answer lies in the film’s final movement, which is where the exclamation mark begins to make sense. What unfolds is so swift, dangerous and audacious that it may just be one of the most viscerally impressive sequences in recent memory.

Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) clearly wants mother! to be many things: a Genesis parable complete with slain Abel, a comment on the collapse of gentility into chaos as in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a tribute to Rosemary’s Baby but without the poise, a satire of cult leaders or a send-up of celebrity obsessions.

And yet, on closer examination, all these complaints and critiques seem to wither. The strongest argument made is a rebuke to the chauvinism and arrogance of all-powerful male artists who leave women strewn about and unloved in their wake. But even that seems thin when one considers this uses Lawrence as a mere prettified, titillating vehicle for our own discomfort. What we’re left with, after the ash has cleared, is shock for its own sake.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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